Recently in the Guardian, critic Jay Rayner wrote that he is “constantly struck by the difference in tone” between American and British restaurant reviews. Americans are somber, he argues, while the Brits are lively entertainers as much as they are guides. It’s a debate that’s raged for decades, so while Rayner was in New York to promote the American publication of his new book — called Jay Rayner’s Last Supper in the States — Grub Street invited him to lunch with our own (American) restaurant critic Adam Platt, so the two could hash things out, face-to-face. Here’s how the conversation went:
Jay Rayner: It’s very simple. American critics — you, Pete Wells, for example — are much more involved in service journalism than I am. The vast majority of the people who read my reviews will never have the opportunity to go anywhere near those restaurants. I know how many times a restaurant’s phone will ring from a good review. I’ve heard it anecdotally a number of times, and even if I go for the most conservative figure, 98 percent of my readers will never go.
Adam Platt: It’s somewhat true of New York, also. I think I’m a very traditional restaurant critic who dutifully makes multiple trips to restaurants, runs through which dishes to get, and tells people how to spend their money. But it is also true, I think especially in a place like New York where the costs are so prohibitive, that people are reading restaurant reviews for vicarious pleasure.
AP: And I think you’re right. American restaurant critics, and I think American journalists in general, are somewhat more — possibly to a fault — dutiful. When you’re a critic in London, you are almost talking to your friends.
AP: Let me finish, because I see you wagging your bejeweled finger at me! British criticism is a conversation. London journalists and opinion makers — your entire professional lives are a series of heated, convivial conversations amongst each other. It’s the subjective, thrust-and-parry style that you grow up with.
JR: We are more knockabout.
AP: It’s changing in America, but the shadow of the Craig Claiborne–style restaurant critic, who tended to adopt an all-knowing tone, still hangs heavy. Whereas, I think in London, the voice of learnedly irreverent, fearless writers like A.A. Gill have a lot of influence. You may correct me if I’m wrong.
JR: The first time you and I met, and this is only the second time, you quizzed me on what I did for a living, and said, Oh, you’re one of those overproductive British hacks.
AP: Did I say “hack”?
AP: Well, I apologize, but of course in England, everybody’s a hack. I mean that’s what you call each other.
JR: The funny thing is, I think Jonathan Gold wrote more like a London restaurant critic than a New York restaurant critic. And I think in a way he gained his purchase because he came from the alternative press, as it’s been called, and everyone wanted that.
AP: I would somewhat agree with that. He wasn’t as outrageous as your average London critic, but he was certainly a virtuoso master of words.
AP: How many critics are there in London? 45?
JR: The British newspaper market is very, very crowded. We have the Guardian, Times, Telegraph, F.T. On a daily basis, four broadsheets, the Indy, are now online. Then we have those three in the mid-market — it’s very crowded.
AP: It’s a good cacophony.
JR: It’s a cacophony of voices, and we all want to be taken seriously in some way, or at the very least, we want you to say you enjoyed my piece more than you enjoyed somebody else’s.
AP: I think the internet has changed things, obviously and there are all sorts of different ways that I think social media journalism is similar to traditional, British–style Fleet Street journalism. Go crazy, make people mad, and on to the next thing. I think the traditional American restaurant critic of my generation is trying, generally, to avoid that, which is maybe not the smart thing.
JR: Do you ever read us and think, I wish I was allowed to write like that?
AP: I’m allowed to write any way that I want, but there’s a certain amount of hemming and hawing. Not self-censorship, but self-seriousness. What was the line of yours that you quoted?
JR: I said a certain restaurant’s service had all the grace of an unlubricated colonoscopy.
AP: I read London critics and say, Boy that sounds fun. But I don’t know that it’s completely reliable. It’s certainly great theater, and it’s entertaining. When you read a line like the late A.A. Gill comparing foie gras dumplings to “liver-filled condoms,” you just have to doff your cap. There’s no way I’d have the guts, or probably the imagination, to write something like that.
JR: I have a thing. Sometimes I write a line even I’m not sure about, and I push myself back from my desk and I say, It’s for the editors to decide. It’s up to them.
AP: You go to restaurants once?
JR: I go once.
AP: You have to admit that going once is just ridiculous. It’s not a review, it’s a loquacious hot take.
JR: No, it’s not.
AP: What would your loquacious hot take of this place be?
JR: Well, I don’t do loquacious hot takes, so you can’t ask me what my loquacious hot take would be. Here’s a question: You got to a restaurant the first time, and you have a mediocre time — how do you feel about the prospect of going back a second time?
AP: Unless it’s a high-profile restaurant, I won’t go back.
JR: So you allow that there is validity to that first experience?
AP: I think there’s validity to all experiences.
JR: Over the weekend, I reviewed Daniel Humm’s new place, Davies and Brook. The bill was £325 for two. How many shots do they get at that price? It was basically a good review, although I did leave thinking I don’t feel the need to go back there.
AP: Do you think criticism in London has gotten more outrageous, and more bold, because it’s so competitive?
JR: I made a point in my Guardian piece that it wasn’t just a case of restaurant criticism being dominated by white, middle-aged people — it’s dominated by the same white, middle-aged people. It’s been the same group of people for a very long time. I’m not here to blow my own trumpet, but I think we’re all pretty damn good writers and we’re all competing against each other on the field of play every single weekend. I am conscious — even though I don’t tend to read the others because I don’t want to read them when they’re better than me — I am conscious that they’re out there, and I think that urges all of us to deliver a zinger of a piece of copy so that someone goes, did you read Rayner? Did you see what Marina O’Loughlin said?
AP: But what about that cacophony of old, white privileged voices?
JR: Well, that’s the problem.
AP: In this country, that’s changing, and most people would say for the better. Those of us dinosaurs who still survive are very conscious that the world is changing, and I think most of us don’t see that as a bad thing. It’s not changing much in New York, yet, but when I choke on this chicken wing, it will change. It’s going to change sooner rather than later.
JR: I feel like we’re at a moment of history, a changing of the guard.
AP: The nature of criticism in this country is changing, becoming less about what certain critics think about certain dishes and more about the stories, traveling down the old foodways, offering more education.
JR: What did you make of the L.A. Review of Books piece, “The Midlife Crisis of the American Restaurant Review”?
AP: It seemed to me that was sort of a Rorschach blot of where criticism has come from, and may be going. It’s no secret that writing these days — not just in the food world — is more about identity and engagement. It’s more political, more about the worlds that a writer like Jonathan Gold helped break open and bring to the public. And for a whole lot of reasons, including the economics of our business, it’s less about the sort of random opinions of an old bloviating guy like me who’s been wandering from one gilded New York restaurant to another for a long time.
JR: But people still want to know if a restaurant is worth their money.
AP: My argument is that, as critics, we have a certain amount of experience, and there is still a market for old-fashioned criticism in this country, an old-fashioned service crew. The danger for the self-serious, classic critic is that you might end up as roadkill.
JR: It’s why I’ve resisted giving stars, because if you had a five-star system, perhaps 75 to 80 percent of your reviews would be two- or three-star reviews. The reader glances at that and then goes, “Oh, one of those.” Whereas — and this might be significant — I want them to read my glittering prose, even when it’s a mere two-and-a-half-star restaurant. I want them to start reading and go, Well, it might be a slightly mediocre restaurant, but by God he wrote about it with vigor.
AP: So, who’s approach is better? I would say, if you want to know where to go eat lunch, you might want to read the dean of the New York School, Pete Wells. If you want to have a chuckle, you call your friends and go, I can’t believe Jay Rayner wrote that, but I don’t know how reliable that is. Readers still need to know how to spend their money and I think American critics generally do a better job of that than the British critics.
JR: Although I’ve obviously made the point that most of the readers read vicariously, and you’ve agreed that American readers do the same, they do still follow our reviews. I hear endless stories that they turn up at a restaurant I’ve given a good review to, with the piece of paper in their hands, going “I want this, this, and this, like he had.” The U.S. view is that spritely, joyous, rackety writing, and an opinion that is reliable cannot exist in the same universe, and I disagree. I think it’s possible to write quite vividly and still be useful.
AP: I think that’s true, and I agree with you, and I have full respect for it, but I would say if that is really the case, you might want to go to a restaurant more than once. Yet I’ve often said I’m a London critic yearning to be free.
JR: What is holding you back?
AP: Sense of propriety, and …
JR: “Sense of propriety”?
AP: Sense of propriety and pure panic and fear.
JR: Why don’t you just have a late midlife crisis and really go for it? Come over to the dark side.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.