Suppose you ran a restaurant and an anonymous critic dropped in to review it. When the review appeared, you were shocked to learn that your place had been torn apart. How would you react? You would, I reckon, have five options. One: Ignore the review. Steven Spielberg does not chase every critic who pans one of his movies down the street with a machete. Two: Write a letter to the editor explaining why you thought the review was unfair. Three: Take out an ad in the same paper to give your side of the story. Four: Withdraw all your advertising. Five: Sue for libel.
Most of us, I think, would opt for option one and ignore the damn thing. But more and more restaurateurs are choosing the more aggressive options.
Last year, Jeffrey Chodorow, a high-profile New York restaurateur, took umbrage when Frank Bruni of The New York Times, America’s most feared restaurant critic, trashed his new steak place The Kobe Club and awarded it zero stars out of four. Chodorow paid $30,000 (about Rs12 lakh) to take out an ad in The New York Times accusing Bruni of mounting a personal attack on him. From now on, wrote Chodorow, he would visit every restaurant that Bruni had reviewed and post his own review on a blog.
Bruni ignored the attack. Chodorow posted five reviews on his blog and then, like the rest of New York, lost interest.
On the one hand, you could argue that Chodorow was being foolish, but it is hard to see how his behaviour was improper. On the other hand, Indian restaurateurs prefer option four and threaten to withdraw their advertising.
Early in my career, in 1979, we did a rating of all the ice cream available in the city for Bombay magazine. Kwality, which had come low down in the list, promptly deleted Bombay from its media list. Fortunately, my proprietors did not care. More recently, after I wrote that a certain hotel chain had a crap wine list, its boss wrote to me to say that he had considered suing for libel, but had held off because he knew me well.
Should Chodorow (with wife Linda) have ignored the review trashing his eatery? (Charley Gallay / Getty Images / AFP)
Libel? Can you libel a wine list?
Don’t laugh. The tendency of outraged restaurateurs to sue for libel is increasingly visible. Last month, in Cork, Ireland, I had lunch with Caroline Workman who had just won a landmark legal victory.
In 2000, Workman who was then a Belfast food critic, was mildly critical of a pizza place called Goodfellas. Its owner, a former taxi driver, threatened to sue. Workman’s paper said it was a freedom of the press issue.
To everybody’s surprise, Goodfellas did sue and to their greater surprise, the restaurant won. A jury found unanimously in Goodfellas’ favour and Workman’s paper was asked to pay damages and costs of £25,000.
I asked Workman why the verdict had gone against her. She said that it probably became a common man versus food snob thing. The jury backed the taxi driver versus the uppity food critic. Nobody worried too much about whether her remarks constituted fair comment or not.
Workman’s paper appealed and last month, a higher court set aside the verdict concluding that the original judge had misdirected the jury. Workman was relieved and food critics throughout the world hailed the verdict as a victory for freedom of speech.
But the case set off that old debate about how far a critic can go. In the US, many chefs and restaurants have sued critics for libel. In nearly every case, the verdict has gone in favour of the critic.
But US critics tend to be mild. That’s not true of the UK where they delight in savaging restaurants. My old friend Fay Maschler, who is England’s most powerful critic, tries to be nice but even she has been known to write things such as this: “Chicken Laksa, an innately likeable dish and not difficult to assemble, arrived looking like debris caught in a drain and tasting not much more appealing.”
The younger critics are even less restrained. Here’s Giles Coren: “The lobster was drizzled with a dried egg-yolk sauce that tasted as if it came out of a baby.” Here’s Coren again on a cheese board: “An assortment of desperate dairy products so terminally cancerous that I had a good mind to remove them from the restaurant and smuggle them thence to Holland where it is legal to humanely terminate the lives of things that have nothing left in their future but pain.”
Matthew Norman is as brutal. “Did they mean to create one of the world’s worst restaurants or was it all a tragic accident?” Or, more famously: “Were the crab and brandy soup found today in a canister buried in the Iraqi desert, it would save Tony Blair’s skin” (Weapon of Mass Destruction—geddit?)
Some critics argue that they are writing only about the food and you can’t defame a soup. But many rubbish entire restaurants and their owners. Here’s Michael Winner: “The food is grotesque, so awful as to be almost indescribable and an absolute disgrace. The owners should call a board meeting at once and fire themselves.”
Despite this, UK critics tend not to be sued. Workman thinks that she had a problem because there was no food reviewing culture in Northern Ireland at the time. She had taken the job to help raise awareness and intended her reviews to be constructive. So, the suit came as a complete shock.
Workman is extremely knowledgeable about food and a kind and decent person. But I reckon she’s being too nice. There was a time when I wrote restaurant reviews and my principle was simple: My responsibility was to my readers and not to the restaurateurs. I was writing to tell people whether to go to a restaurant or not. There was no reason for me to be constructive or to encourage the chef. If you charge money for a meal, then you must be prepared to be judged.
As for libel, I think the basic principle is valid. If I say that the chef is a crook and that he has his fingers in the till, then I may be defaming them. If I tell my readers that his soup is crap then I’m performing a public service. Of course the chef may disagree about the quality of his soup but we both have the right to our own opinions.
If the chef wants to write a letter, take out an ad or even, withdraw his advertising, that’s his prerogative.
But a critic’s prerogative is to tell it as he sees it. And that’s not libel.
(Write to Vir at firstname.lastname@example.org)