How to write a savvy restaurant review: introduction Part 1

You may well remember one of HTWB’s most popular writing articles, “How to write a restaurant review” … ? That was written by one of my oldest friends who sadly passed away in 2015.

How to write a savvy restaurant review: introduction Part 1

Another issue that will invariable come up is price. That can be divisive as well because we all eat different things, drink different amounts and have different ideas about what is expensive and what is not.

Having had me nag at him to write a short book that expands on the original article, author Sam Worthington went ahead and produced it.

Seeing how amazingly popular Sam’s original article has been here with more than 25,000 reads, his family have given me permission to reproduce the text of the whole book in a series. Bon appétit.

You can still buy Sam’s book – it’s a great little gift and Holiday stocking filler

Sam’s introduction: Part 1

How to write a savvy restaurant review - Sam's introduction, part 1

Click on this book cover to go to its Amazon (UK) page

For a while, when I was the high profile restaurant reviewer of two ex-pat papers in Budapest and Warsaw, I was considered the authority on eating out. The inevitable consequence of this was that when I met somebody new – once they realised who I was as I used a nom de plume – they asked, “well, what is the best restaurant here?”

That may appear to be a comparatively simple call – after all we used to run a restaurant of the year competition. But in reality the answer is fraught with danger.

Whatever I may think, my view is it is an opinion – a considered opinion maybe and a highly qualified opinion as well as I have dined all over the world – but it is still my view and open to challenge.

Of course the secret of being a successful restaurant reviewer is to empathise with your readers. You will not last long if you say a place is good and everybody else thinks it is not.

But I would answer that question with a question, “What,” I would say, “do you want?” Then I would ask “is it for a high powered business meeting? A romantic evening? A friendly meal with a friend, and if so what kind of friend? Or is for a party to have a bit of fun?”

The point here is that in the restaurant business, as much as in the horse racing business, it is a very much “horses for courses.” A Derby horse is not a National horse – but that does not prevent both from being excellent animals!

Another issue that will invariable come up is price. That can be divisive as well because we all eat different things, drink different amounts and have different ideas about what is expensive and what is not.

A meal in London’s West End is almost certainly going to be more expensive than a similar meal in, say, rural Wales. Just as relevant is what a meal constitutes: my idea of the perfect light snack for lunch is a lobster and a bottle of Gewürztraminer and I would expect to pay lot more for that than a plate of pasta and a small carafe of house wine – which is not really lunch at all!

If somebody said, “did you have a good lunch and how much was it?” To answer “yes” and quote the price of my lunch tells them nothing, without a description of the meal.

Similarly if I go out to dinner with a friend, and drink three bottles of wine, the price will be great deal more than for a more modest gathering of water drinkers. So either the meal has to be described in detail along with the price, or given a general description suggesting the price was in line with what would be expected in that kind of establishment.

The latter method is preferable when writing on the internet, as so often those articles stay around for years and five years later what you paid is probably out of date.

I often caused a certain amount of derision when dining – particularly with my friend Lord Toad – by adding comments like ‘after three bottles of half decent wine and few calavas (calvados) the bill was a modest ….’ Of course it is all grist to the reviewer’s mill, and reputation!

Humour is a double edged sword – get it right and it enhances the review but all too often a joke is not appreciated by every reader – particularly as humour does not travel well across cultures.

The same goes for sarcasm and facetious comments: they need to work and using them badly can make the writer look the fool, not the intended target.

On this point one time I had an interesting discussion with an American who had run a successful pub in LA. “What,” he asked me, “is the vital ingredient of a good English pub?”

‘There are not many left in the UK,’ I thought, and then explained a few things about communities and who you have, and who you don’t have, in the bar. Next I said, “if you walk into good old fashioned boozer you are likely to be told to b*gger off.”

The American looked puzzled.

“Or you could be the rear end of a human,” I replied to his unanswered question, adding a little humour hoping he would get the point. As it dawned on him what I meant I added, “Of course such a greeting in the U S of A may get you shot.”

“Ah,” he said, “anything as long as you are recognised.” Bingo! To be called a rude name meant you were ‘in.’

Needless to say what I am getting at is a new reviewer needs to think about how they will write their reviews.

Will they be easy-to-read reviews gently poking the restaurant with some light hearted observations which try to give an overall impression of what the place is like? Or will they be meticulous in detail allowing the reader to build up a specific image of the place?

I am not a writing coach or ghostwriter. However what I do know is you need to be readable – that means your readers must want to read your prose and find it easy to do so. Consequently your personality needs to come across.

Ostensibly you need to become an extrovert who knows and loves their subject.

Realistically, you need to know what good food is, but not a great deal about the technicalities as the internet now provides much information – both good and bad.

A reviewer no longer needs to live with a Larousse Gastronomique. ( I am on my third copy.)

But beware of believing everything the web tells you. If I need to look things up I take two or three answers, or more if there is a discrepancy between them, before I will settle on what looks right.

I normally have a good idea of the answer so I am checking, more than getting new knowledge. If you really do not know, the best advice is avoid the issue lest you make a fool of yourself!

One other tip: MS word has a spell checker that tends to be American and not English – you can adjust it to English UK and do if that is your language.

However another useful tool is the right click on a word for synonyms – as every writer knows looking for different ways to say the same thing is part of the art and I used to write with a thesaurus by my side – I still have it after 30+ years.

MS word can often be stupid – well it would be, wouldn’t it – when it comes to spelling. And my dyslexia can completely fool it.

However Google search is much cleverer. Type a wrongly spelled word into Google and invariably you get the right answer.

You can also check word meanings and use online thesauruses. So the web can be truly the author’s friend – you just need to know how to harness it for good, but beware of false counsel.

Check out the next part in this series – coming soon on How To Write Better.

Questions? Drop Suze a note on