How to write a restaurant review: the menu and the wine list, Part 4

In this fourth part of the late Sam Worthington’s short book, “How To Be A Savvy Restaurant Reviewer,” Sam takes a long, hard and savvy look at the menu and wine list.

How to write a restaurant review: the menu and the wine list, Part 4

You can tell an awful lot about a restaurant not just by the contents of the menu and wine list, but also by the way – and when – it is presented. Read on…

Why a good reviewer shares in-depth comments on the menu and wine list

You have been greeted and seated so the first thing you need – after a drink maybe – is the menu. You could even argue that getting the menu and wine list is part of the greeting process; it certainly is in bistros and fast food joints.

The wine list is particularly important to people who, like me, may want to order a bottle of white wine as an apéritif, which can then usually stretch over the opening courses.

Although most restaurants understand that their main business is selling food, believe you me I have been to a few that have other aspirations. It is usually feeding the ego of the proprietor, or sometimes it is simply feeding the staff for doing as little as possible.

Inevitably they only last as long as the owner’s pockets are deep, and at times even that is too long! But assuming the place you are in is doing what its name suggests, then getting a list of their products to you ASAP should be an essential.

The internet can save the reviewer much work as most restaurants have a website with the menu and wine list on it.

Directing your readers to that site is good because it will keep them up to date with both changes in the menus and prices.

In many ways the menu is the most important part of the business and for reviewers, giving a good feel of the menu is essential. By feel I mean not just the type of food, but also the depth and range of the offerings. I usually say something like “the mains included 6 meats options, three fish as well a statutory veggie offering.”

Catch up with Part 1Part 2 and Part 3 of this gourmet series – click on the green links

Of course you need to describe the type of food if it is not a restaurant with a specific ethnicity. Very often the menu will have a blurb saying a little about the background of the owner and thus the source of the recipes – Italians seem to be particularly keen on telling everybody where they came from and singing the praises of that region.

Since the ethnicity of the place is the most important menu issue for most people, inevitably ethnic restaurants of the same ilk tend to have similar menus. Thus it is up the reviewer to look for the menu items that are not the norm.

In a way the restaurants of a country are ethnic too – be it of that country or region.

So the menu needs summing up in a few concise words and then a few different, or exceptional dishes, can be explained.

In this book I am doing the review in clear layers. However when you are writing your reviews, the layers may well be intermingled – e.g. with menu description followed by what actually arrived, all in the same sentence. That’s fine in an actual review!

It is not unusual for restaurants to have two, three or more menus. In France they are keen on their menus and these are normally much cheaper than going à la carte. As a reviewer, quantifying the different menus is vital – how much detail is up to you!

How to write a restaurant review: the menu and the wine list, Part 4

Sam’s book makes a great little gift – available on all the Amazons. Click on this cover to go to the UK Amazon.

I am sucker for a menu dégustation – they vary but in general they are a tasting type menu and should display the best cooking the kitchen can provide. On top of that dégustation menus are normally 4 to 6 courses and expensive. So whilst they may show the abilities of the establishment’s kitchen they may not provide particularly useful information for a reader who does not want to splash out.

The other problem I have found in France, in particular, is that dégustation menus all too often feature the same items – foie gras and pigeon seem to be the current 21st century favourites.

The menu at the other end of the scale – the daily menu – is normally a good option for a review, albeit a little boring.

Daily menus, in decent restaurants, normally represent value as well as good simple cooking.

Regional menus are often interesting with different dishes. However it is your review and you decide what you want to review and that may well be decided by budget. What is needed is a description of the menu options and selected dishes from them; then what the reviewer has decided to eat and why.

Assuming the reviewer is not alone then it is important that every diner concerned selects differently, and to that end the reviewer’s own selection is best made after the his/her companions have decided. Variety is the spice of a review.

The wine list is usually little more than a complementary offering of a simple range of different wine types by country, region, colour, grape, year and price. I am by no means an expert on wine, but I suppose I know my way round a wine list – and so I should … I have had enough practice.

But wine as I am sure you are aware is a highly specialised subject that is best left to the experts. It is also an important part of the meal so it deserves significant mention by outlining the choices available and I usually mention price as well. I know this goes against my comments on the meal price but wine is a peculiar item, in that there is little consistency in pricing.

Some restaurants – particularly outside Europe – seem to think if a person is dumb enough to drink wine they deserve to be ripped off.

However even within Europe there are very different ways of applying the margin to wine. The house wine is important: there is a feeling that the house wine should represent the establishment as much as the food. My view is it should certainly be drinkable – yet I have had some house wines that would not have disgraced fish and chips – assuming Sarson’s and chips takes your fancy.

That takes me back to those awful days of the seventies when ‘dry white wine’ was all the rage – the drier the better – how people drank it I have no idea!

But fortunately we have moved on and there is massive range of wines available to most restaurants. The reviewer should précis the list so the reader has some idea of their options – I usually mention the house, or least expensive wine, as well as a couple from the top end.

Of course there are restaurants with staggering wine lists usually featuring the wines of a region. Many restaurants in the Bordeaux region of France have huge and comprehensive list of local wines which, in their case, means some of the finest vineyards in the world.

Some of the older wines need decanting and really cannot be drunk at short notice.

I love those lists and I sit a drool over one when I see it.

The listings are normally in weighty leather bound folder – I always then feel a little embarrassed when I order something not that special! But I enjoy the read – gasping at Cheval Blancs and Chateau Margaux made when I was in short trousers. Well worth literalising over when writing the review.

At this stage I have not mentioned dessert wines and ports, etcetera, which I will deal with at the appropriate time – that is of course unless you want a bottle decanted for later!

Next time: “foreplay” … and some of Sam’s funniest observations!

Any questions? Drop Suze a note on