UPDATE December 2015: sadly we have to report that Sam Worthington passed away in November 2015, at his home in Angeles City, the Philippines. He was 68 years old and still enjoying eating, drinking and critiquing restaurants until the day before he died. He will be missed, very sadly. This article, therefore, has become a memorial to Sam – one of life’s true “bon viveurs.”
Globe-trotting UK-born restaurant reviewer Sam Worthington – a chef, restaurateur and publican in some of his former lives – had been eating and drinking his way around the world for more than 30 years.
Unlike many restaurant critics he was fair rather than bitchy and hyper-critical and as such had become one of the most respected gastro-critics in the world today. Here, Sam shared his advice and tips on how you can review a restaurant for a local magazine or newspaper, or for your blog or website, Trip Advisor and similar platforms, or even for greater things…
If you can write and enjoy eating out then producing a restaurant review should be easy. Though remember the acronym KISS (keep it simple stupid) and bear in mind this is not a popularity contest: restaurant owners will hate you and your friends may disagree.
The first question you have to answer is did you enjoy the meal, and if so why? A meal is the whole event; the review should represent that.
First impressions are enormously important. If you are kept waiting to be seated, or you’re abandoned at the table without a menu, these mistakes will irate the average diner however good the rest is.
The next thing the reader wants to know is, how did the early part of the meal go, was the place comfortable, was the decor attractive, was the greeting warm, was the order taken quickly? An overview of the menu is good, but too much detail is, in most cases, superfluous. Try to encapsulate what the menu is about. Is it a classic Italian menu? An interesting degustation meal featuring modern French cuisine? A good traditional British Sunday lunch that will mean a lot to regular diners? Mention the diversity of dishes and veggie options in particular.
Much the same can be said for the wine list. This is of the essence to most diners, so range and variety are important as well as your selection and what you thought of it.
The more diners with you the better for a review – providing they order differently. A brief summing up of each dish is good although not always required. What is important is look, presentation and taste. Was it cooked as requested?
Cover each course but the main course normally deserves extra attention. Accoutrements like vegetables and sauces are important, so words should be devoted to them – but unless you really know your stuff, do not get technical.
“My duck breast looked good and came pink, as requested, with a bitter sweet orange sauce, it was accompanied by a good mash of sweet potato, neat batons of al dente carrots and celeriac” tells your reader everything they need to know. And you can then get away with saying ‘my guest’s lamb was of a similar standard.’ Desserts, also, are worth a sentence or two.
The coffee and payment may or may not warrant comment – were there any freebies at the end? Did the bill come promptly? Sometimes service charges are worth commenting on if they are excessive. As to price, I seldom comment unless I thought it was particularly expensive or particularly cheap. That’s because to do so dates the piece too much, and in any case regular diners know what they will need to pay.
The end should sum up your overall impression of the meal.
Was the whole experience good, bad, or indifferent? Would you go back; if so why, or why not? Was mine host on hand and did s/he speak to you? Include the full name, address, telephone number and website – if there is one.
These days small cameras – even within your mobile/cell phone – can take a good picture which is a great illustration. Getting useable food pictures is never easy; it takes time and experience to get it right. But one thing a camera is good for is snapping the menu – a great reference when you write about it later.
A sad reality is that most successful restaurant reviewers are often highly critical and bitingly sarcastic. I do not believe in that per se – I believe reviews should be interesting and fun, but above all honest. My motto has always been ‘I pay my way and say what I think.’ Needless to say meals are not always up to standard and there is usually something that can be criticised; sometimes it is everything, sometimes very little, seldom it is nothing. Be picky; that is your job. And remember only anonymity allows you to do your job properly.
Be sharp-eyed, know your food, and be charming as you tear down a reputation – and always remember that IS what you do, with a truly bad review.
AND NOW … become an expert restaurant reviewer like Sam: read his whole book, serialised here on HTWB!
Because this article is so popular with HTWB readers, Sam Worthington wrote a 10,000 word eBook showing you how a restaurant should be judged, reviewed and critiqued. To quote from the Amazon page:
“Worldwide restaurant reviewer Sam Worthington provides an easy to read guide to writing restaurant reviews. Sam is known for his forthright views, no nonsense and often amusing accounts of his dining experiences. An invaluable guide for anybody starting out as a reviewer as well as worthwhile advice and tips for experienced critics. Sam is an acknowledged foody who has also worked as a chef and restaurant owner.”
Update 2016: as a tribute to Sam who sadly passed away in 2015 (see above), his family have given us permission to serialise the book here on How To Write Better. This is your chance to learn not just the basics of reviewing restaurants, but also the benefit of Sam’s many years of experience and knowledge of food, wine and the hospitality industry generally.
So if you want to become an expert restaurant reviewer like Sam was, click on, and read on…!
Just click on the green words:
Part 1 Introduction 1
Part 2 Introduction 2
Part 3 The first impression
Part 4 The menu and the wine list
Part 5 Foreplay…
Part 6 Food: the main event?
Part 7 Sugar and spice
Part 8 Paying and writing it up
PS: you can also buy Sam’s book in its entirety – “How to be a savvy restaurant reviewer: the secrets of a restaurant critic” – here in the UK, here in the USA, here in Canada. It’s also on most other Amazons.