Restaurants have been hit hard by coronavirus – so there’s no point in me being brutal. I’m going to carry on finding positives, and ignoring the mediocre
Sometimes, in the woozy minutes before sleep takes hold, I think about the dreadful restaurants I haven’t written about: the clumsily made sauces I haven’t compared to bodily fluids in need of treatment by antibiotics; the waiters who appear to have learned their people skills in a CIA black ops facility; the decor crying out for a little adjustment, courtesy of a can of petrol and a box of Swan Vestas. I think about all these writing opportunities missed, and then I sleep easy. For I have missed nothing.
It’s a little over 10 weeks since restaurants began reopening across the UK, and the massive blow to the hospitality sector is becoming increasingly obvious. Some places simply won’t ever be reopening. Goodbye Vanilla Black and Sardine. Goodbye to numerous branches of Pizza Express, Byron Burger, Pret a Manger and so many more.
Those that remain have had a mixed experience. The chancellor’s “eat out to help out” scheme was undoubtedly effective, while it was running. According to research by Barclaycard, 40% of us made use of it and spending in August was up 34.6% on July. But the scheme had a secondary purpose, which was to encourage the habit of restaurant-going. Here the figures are less reassuring. Only one in five people have said they intend to eat out more often as a result. And so, in turn, many restaurants are going to continue their own versions of the scheme’s discounts from Monday to Wednesday, which they will fund.
You can read that as entrepreneurial spirit, or as desperation. Despite endless whingeing from some consumers about prices, restaurants are not a get-rich-quick scheme. Margins are tight and discounts will only chip away at them, however much business they generate. In addition, the arrival of autumn will limit outside dining and, therefore, capacity. Bring on a vaccine, and so on.
What a time to be a restaurant critic. My grand pronouncement 10 weeks ago that I would not, for the foreseeable future, be writing overtly negative reviews, continues to be greeted with eye rolling by some. It ranges from the bloodthirsty – where’s the fun in that? – to those who argue I’m failing restaurant-goers by not exposing the sub-standard. But very little has changed. Pre-Covid-19 there were more than 26,000 restaurants in the UK. There were literally thousands of awful places I’d never been to, let alone written about. Now I’m simply writing about fewer of them, I’d prefer to accentuate the positive. That doesn’t mean giving good reviews to bad places, or not including criticisms. It just means that if I can’t be generally positive, I won’t review and will move on.
I accept this looks a bit rich coming from a man who has published two collections of negative restaurant reviews, available from all good booksellers. I clearly recognised the appeal of the brutal back then. But even pre-Covid-19 I didn’t go looking for the bad, and generally reserved my ire for the over-funded, over-corporate places. So now I’ll merely leave the Swarovski-crusted, gold-carded crowd to fester in their own dens of mediocrity.
Covid-19 is not some mere blip. It’s not just a stretch of rough road before a return to the smooth. It is a once-in-a-century event akin to a world war, which changes things permanently. I wince now when I read a so-called rival going brutally negative on a restaurant business. In such dire economic circumstances, it just feels unnecessary. There are other ways. Some suggest it risks making me less readable. Well then, it’s up to me as a writer to prove them wrong. I do this job because I love restaurants. And now is definitely the time to show them a bit of that love.