When a celebrity restaurant critic comes to town, it’s not just about the food. It’s all about the writer. David Nicholson bites back

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Diners at the Star Inn The City. Photograph: Richard McDougall

On the off-chance that you aren’t one of the Observer’s remaining 225,000 readers, please allow me to tell you about an article you might have missed last weekend (Sunday, October 5).

The piece in question is by Jay Rayner; a near-damning review of York restaurant, The Star Inn The City.

In case you don’t know Mr Rayner, he’s a ‘stylish’ snarky metropolitan type. So we, poor northerners that we are, should be very glad that Jay Rayner, yes, the Jay Rayner no less, has deigned to visit our city and pass judgement on what by most standards is a pretty decent restaurant.

In a 1,093-word review of his visit to the popular eaterie in Museum Street, the smug presenter of Radio 4’s Kitchen Cabinet devotes just 300 words to the food.

The rest of his mean-spirited article is a self-aggrandising demolition job on the restaurant’s quirky menu and idiosyncratic style.

In short, he doesn’t like it.

He doesn’t like the fact that the bread is served in a flat cap; he doesn’t like the jokey headings on the menu (Good Game, Good Game; On The Sauce); he doesn’t like the overwritten menu details (Cassoulet of Hodgson’s of Hartlepool natural smoked haddock; risotto of local estate shot red-legged partridge).

Yes, the menu may be a tad cluttered with detail, and yes, the jokey style isn’t to everyone’s taste. Fair comment, maybe.

But surely that could have been handled in just 50 to 70 words perhaps; not 700.

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‘One only has to visit Google Images to see the development of the self-preening Mr Rayner’

What the puffed-up pompous prig Mr Rayner seems to forget in his self-serving, narcissistic ‘I’-fest of a review (after hitting the high 20s, we lost count of the number of times he used the personal pronoun) is that his throwaway dismissal can damage livelihoods, and hurt reputations in a way that takes months, even years to restore.

I have never met Andrew Pern, the chef whose Star at Harome has earned justified plaudits down the years.

To reinforce the disingenuous stance of the piece Mr Rayner also fails in one of the most basic pieces of restaurant review journalism

The Star Inn The City is Pern’s bold attempt to bring top-notch country pub-restaurant food into the heart of York. I have eaten at Harome once, and at the Star Inn The City five or six times. On each occasion, the meals were excellent.

Mr Rayner’s unbalanced criticism verges on bullying… and it’s impossible for a chef or owner to respond without appearing desperately defensive.

Sure, restaurateurs will get some things wrong from time to time. Rayner references the much-missed Fossgate bistro, J Baker’s. For all the brilliance of the food offering there, I never cared much for the quirky decor, but it didn’t stop me going back for the excellent fare.

Similarly, Rayner’s observations about the Star menu strike a chord with me.

But Rayner’s piece is less about the restaurant than it is about a needy writer’s desperation to build his reputation further.

When he does finally get around to talking about the food, he doesn’t much enjoy his meal. Mr Rayner, clearly no stranger to a nice pudding, saves his scant praise for the dessert course alone.

Gone are the days when food writers were wraith-like in an attempt to remain unseen and objective in their criticism.

One only has to visit Google Images to see the development of the self-preening Mr Rayner; here he is wielding a kitchen knife; there he sits in the stocks for a publicity shot; now he’s at the piano; can you see him in the boxing ring? The hunk!

To reinforce the disingenuous stance of the piece Mr Rayner also fails in one of the most basic pieces of restaurant review journalism. He reports a bill of £120 for two with drinks.

That may be accurate, but it’s unfair if he’s not giving the reader a clue about how much the drinks counted towards the price.

But celebrity restaurant reviews are not about fairness. It seems they are not really much about food either.

They are all about the critic and his reputation.

It’s hard to swallow.

6 comments on “London review of a York restaurant leaves a nasty taste in the mouth

  1. Don’t forget that Jay Rayner once had himself shaved for a piece in the Observer. But I usually find he is spot on about the food.

  2. You only need to look at TripAdvisor to see that nearly 50% of the people reviewing The Star Inn the City also agree with Jay! Harome is great but it’s City sister equivalent is like a poor, obnoxious relative.

  3. As an occasional visitor to York, I ate there soon after it opened and have returned since, in preference to many other good restaurants in the city. The food and ambience are excellent. I suppose some might see the jokey menu as patronising, but maybe they should lighten up! Like David, when I read the disproportionately damning review I was concerned about what harm it might do to the business. Don’t be put off if you haven’t tried it yet!

  4. Jay Rayner has always been pretty honest about York restaurants: In the past he gave great reviews to Vanilla Black, Red Chilli and told it how it was about the Blue Bicycle.

    People eating at the Star Inn York are eating there because of the reputation of the Harome restaurant (which is very good). When the story is bigger than the product, it is good for business, but doesn’t mean the food there is good.

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