Jay Rayner’s review of Le Cinq in Paris became an overnight online sensation this week, slating each and every course that was served up before him – with descriptions only a pissed off wordsmith could conjure. Let’s all remember the line “my lips purse, like a cat’s arse that’s brushed against nettles.” Of course bad reviews are the most pleasurable to read and are devilishly amusing to write but it’s not all about the spectator sport of watching someone fail that we love these reviews for.
No, this went beyond schadenfreude; this was calling out an overpriced bastion of the rich and tasteless and simply stating the truth - it’s a bit shit. If you must charge in excess of £500 for dinner, it should be a meal that leaves you with sumptuous memories. Heck, if you’re going to charge that much you should be delivering great food, no exceptions.
The reason Rayner can go and write that review is because food critics have managed to keep their place in today’s social media and word-of-mouth reviewed world. We may take what they say as simply their opinion and choose to try a venue none-the-less, but they have never been afraid to tell it like it is and that gives us trust in their findings. They’re not trying to make best friends with every chef, write reviews to flatter people they’d quite like to be on familiar terms with or get invited on free trips to Italy to do food tastings. And this is where the bar reviewers and publications fail us.
Try finding a truly negative review of bar in London in any of the big newspapers or online publications. It’s tough – I spent this week trawling through them all and discovered a few Time Out two star ratings. “Maybe look elsewhere for a less gloomy happy hour,” remarked one. “And as for that fabled mojito? Warm, watery and with a layer of crunchy, undissolved sugar at the bottom,” recorded another.
It’s hardly references to a cat’s arse, but it’s about as cruel as London bar reviews get. We’ve developed a language to skirt around issues. "Sobering prices" means “You have to work on the top floor of One Canary Wharf to afford the drinks". "Shades might be wise to counteract all that surface shine” probably means “Oh my good god the lighting is interrogation-room bright". My particular favourite was “if you’re looking for a party, you’ve come to the right place. Especially if party for you means Justin Bieber tunes.” Why not simply say “The music is absolutely awful" and move on?
We may well be at a place where professional bar reviews have become meaningless – one of Time Out’s only one-star rated venues has 16 five-star ratings from the Great British public and has gone on to win a Time Out Love London award last year – again – voted for by the public. Evidentially no one actually cares that an official reviewer said the place had “the depressing feel of a once-great bar in a long-forgotten seaside town.”
One of the main issues is bar reviewers are all a bit too close to the bar owners and bartenders. We go drinking with them, judge cocktail competitions, end up at the same events and inevitably get a bit friendly. Then try writing that the lighting is way too harsh in your friend’s recently launched new venue, which you know they’ve sunk all their capital in to. It’s not easy walking the tightrope between your contacts and being unbiased. But is the bar industry, at the top of its game, big enough to support a critic that is detached and only employed to review venues? Certainly it’s a far smaller world than food and restaurants and, again, would enough people care?
Then there’s the attitude bar sites have – we’re your fun pal as opposed to a serious and removed critic.
Most, ourselves included, opt to only include bars deemed good enough – the rest we simply don’t list, mention or waste time including. It's tough enough keeping on top of 400 venues in one city let alone adding in all the sub-par ones as well. But that means that there’s little accountability for those getting it wrong. The beauty of a review like Rayner’s is Le Cinq’s chefs have had a massive wakeup call and there’s time to go away and get it right. It’ll probably also save a few souls from coughing up £500 for a dinner they were hoping would, at the very least, be exceptional. You have to wonder if anyone did cancel a reservation after Rayner’s review or if they decided to go and see just how bad it was for themselves.
Perhaps the traditional bar review as we know it should simply bow out? What’s being published isn’t often the truth these days – it’s a glossed version, selling a night out rather than talking honestly about a venue that’s there to provide a service, to showcase creativity and ultimately to profit.
All my reviewer pals tell me that no publication has ever let them print an honestly scathing review even when they’ve been brave enough to write it.
Either way, I doubt I’ll ever get to write about my worst bar experience thus far, and so will be denied the unrivalled pleasure of describing the place as the "scene of crime" or a cocktail as "tasting like a condom that’s been left lying about in a dusty greengrocer’s” (I mean - seriously - we salute you Mr Rayner – such articulate hatred).
In the meantime, you can find me over here – trying to find yet another synonym for delicious. FML.