The neon proclaims it The Rosedale Oyster; the public apparently couldn’t care less. On a cold Thursday evening in mid-January, four patrons linger at the bright stand-up bar, but in the darkened dining room for 85, only six brave souls have chosen to ignore The Globe and Mail’s warning. Killer Kates has struck again-or so it seems.
In a classic, caustic review of the restaurant last October, Joanne Kates took deadly aim at not only the food but also at Toronto’s preppy Rosedale crowd who make up the Oyster’s clientele. At year’s end she took another shot at the restaurant, giving it the distinctly dubious award for “Worst Meal Of The Year.” “There is nothing more disheartening,” she wrote, “than a snazzy-looking restaurant with awful food.”
The staff is morose, milling here and gossiping there. But as the clock makes its way from seven to eight a sort of miraculous transformation occurs. A party of four arrives, followed by a birthday group of 10. While the waiters argue about who will take what, another couple arrives, and then a party of six. Spirits soar and the boys break out the smiles. Maybe the rent will get paid.
The saga of The Rosedale Oyster is a strange one-by all accounts it should be dead. In a cutthroat business, it’s the critics who decide who many of the winners and losers are. Damien McGoldrick, part-owner of the Oyster, admits to at least a 20 per cent drop in his business following the two reviews. Further south, on Church Street, L’hardy’s and Quenelles are still gasping for breath after Kates went for the jugular first in a November review and then again at the end of the year. Brian Watley, manager of the two upscale restaurants in a turn-of-the-century mansion, says business has dropped more than 10 per cent; he wouldn’t be more specific.
Restaurant critics are a fearsome lot. Combined, their opinions can make or break a place faster than you can say reservation. And for better or worse, readers trust these opinions. But should they? Restaurant critics are hard to define; they are not united by common tastes or training, they are by no means uniform in their judgments, and these days are as pervasive as Beaujolais Nouveau in November.
One reason for the rising popularity of restaurant reviews is the sheer size of the market. There are about 5,000 restaurants in Metropolitan Toronto alone, with 900 new ones opening every year and almost as many closing. With choice like that, consumers look for advice before spending what is increasingly a lot of money for a meal. But what kind of advice are they getting? And who are they getting it from?
In the areas of art and culture, critics are expected to be experts in their fields. Not so with restaurants. For the most -3 part, reviewers are knowledgeable amateurs. Only Joanne Kates has formal food training, having studied at the Cordon Bleu cooking school in Paris and later having worked in the kitchen of the esteemed Three Small Rooms at the Windsor Arms Hotel in Toronto. Otherwise, most critics have learned their trade on the job, acting more as reporters than actual critics. The Toronto Star, for example, uses a network of untutored reporters for its daily “Table for Two” column. “What does the average person know about food?” asks Peeter Tammearu, the Star’s restaurant critic for the Friday “What’s On” section. “Not much,” he answers. Tammearu is no expert but he likes to cook and has been reviewing restaurants for more than two years. In his opinion it’s not important that a critic be an accomplished saucier but rather that he give an accurate description of what his readers are likely to find at a given restaurant on any given night. The Globe’s occasional food critic, Jay Scott, agrees with him: “You’ve got to have eaten out a lot but you don’t need to know how a dish was made-1 usually do, but it’s not necessary.”
There are those, however, who disagree vehemently. David Kingsmill, the Star’s head food writer and restaurant critic, insists critics have to know a lot about food before they can purport to review it. Kingsmill has no formal training, but researching and writing food features every week in the Star’s test kitchen has given him a definite advantage over the Star’s regular reporters. Says Kingsmill: “I’ve had a bone to pick with the Star for a while. These guys are reporters with no knowledge of food; it’s puff writing, it’s atrocious. You might as well get a chef to do a music review and a ditch-digger to review a restaurant.”
This equation with other forms of entertainment is actually misleading, as Jay Scott knows. Scott, the Globe’s regular film reviewer, was named Restaurant Critic of the Year at the 1985 Canadian Food Writers’ Awards for the reviewing he did while Joanne Kates was on a one-year sabbatical in Europe. He shared the duties with John Allemang, now the restaurant critic for the Globe’s Toronto magazine. Scott knows that a favorable review means people will be going out to spend as much as $100 for a meal-not the usual $5.50 that a movie costs. The other main difference, as he sees it, is the elusive quality of the subject: “No other form of criticism strains the writer’s credibility in the reader’s mind as much because the restaurant business is such an ephemeral one.” Restaurants, after all, are not like films; meals change from night to night, depending on the chef, the ingredients, even the waiter.
Credible or not, restaurant reviews attract readers: they are now carried by almost every major newspaper and magazine in Toronto. In a crowded field, each publication tries to cover the same ground in slightly different ways. TO magazine takes the smart, trendy approach; it’s not the food that counts but the style. Now looks for the ethnic, the cheap and cheerful, while Toronto Life keeps tabs on the places for the older, more affluent crowd. Toronto’s three dailies, however, compete head on to be the first to cover the new hot spots. And this competition raises ethical questions about which some reviewers disagree.
Is it fair to review a place that has just opened its doors, running the risk of damning it before it’s operating smoothly? Most critics don’t think so. The benchmark waiting period seems to be three months, after which any new restaurant is fair game. But city magazines, facing up to three months’ lead time, sometimes jump the gun just to stay current. As Allemang points out, “If a restaurant is open for business, charging full prices for a meal, then it is open for criticism. Besides, most restaurants wouldn’t get off the ground without a review.”
Just ask Barbara Gordon, the Vancouver restaurateur who came to Toronto to launch Beaujolais, last year’s big winner in the restaurant sweeps. Beaujolais openedJanuary 20. Three weeks later the kitchen was humming but there was no one to cook for. Gordon called Scott for a review. On February 16, the day after his rave appeared, she was turning people away.
But the fact that a restaurateur called a critic to solicit a review raises the question of ethics again. Is it fair to request a review? Scott’s integrity had been tested before; he gave a negative review in September, 1985, to one of his good friends, Yael Dunkelman, owner of the upscale diner The Daily Planet. Scott’s review put a strain on their relationship, but in the end Dunkelman had to accept Scott’s judgment; in fact, she took his advice and made some improvements.
Anonymity is another ethical consideration. The assumption is that if a reviewer is recognized, the restaurateur will go to special lengths to impress him or her-special attention an ordinary patron is unlikely to receive. One critic who takes pains to protect her identity is Joanne Kates. In the picture that runs with her weekly Globe and Mail’column “On the Menu” her face is hidden beneath the brim of a fedora. And for a guest appearance on The Journal last November, Kates wore a wig, glasses and what looked like a rubber nose.
Not only can a lack of anonymity affect the meal and service, it can inspire the owners to ply a critic with free cognac or dessert (a bizarre gesture, considering the critics don’t pay for their own meals anyway). “I have two basic operating principles,” says Kates. “I never take a gift and I never let them know who I am.” In fact, wine will sometimes arrive at her office following a good review but it goes straight into a cab and back to where it came from. One critic who has a harder time concealing his identity is Jeremy Brown, restaurant editor of Goodlife magazine and restaurant critic for radio station CKFM. His distinctive voice is often a giveaway. But Brown insists that anonymity is not essential: “Cooks cook as well as they can regardless of who you are.”
Cooking, however, is not a critic’s sole concern. Jay Scott articulates a popular notion among critics when he says: “Restaurant reviewing is not just about food. There are very few purists who go out just to eat. Dining is a total experience.” And while most restaurateurs would agree with Scott, many feel there is an invisible line over which some critics often stray. For instance, in her review of The Rosedale Oyster, Kates spent nearly 400 words of the 950word column assailing the preppies who ate there; she took shots at their clothes, their careers, even their conversation. It was a review that infuriated the restaurant community. Part-owner Damien McGoldrick says: “We are in the public domain sowe are open for criticism, but as a private operator I have no recourse, I cannot defend my customers.” John Maxwell, proprietor of Joe Allen, called the review shocking: “Joanne Kates is totally irresponsible, vindictive and spiteful; she goes way beyond the confines of food criticism into areas of social comment that have no place in a review.”
For her part, Kates offers no defence. She says none is necessary. “I write to entertain myself. If people don’t like it, they don’t have to read me. I don’t think food deserves 800 or 900 words. There are more interesting things to write about. I try to capture the semiotics of a place, the social signifiers.”
Furthermore, says Kates, who is often accused of dancing on restaurants’ graves, “I don’t get a charge out of damning a place. It’s serious work and people’s livelihoods depend on it. But it’s not my job to temper my impressions. I call it as I see it.”
While newspapers still indulge in negative criticism, city magazines do not. Toronto, Goodltfe, TO and Toronto Life all have policies, either implicit or explicit, against printing strongly negative reviews. The reason, according to Goodlife’s Jeremy Brown, is that they are providing a service to readers by telling them where to go, not what to avoid.
In that case, the question of trust and ethics is again raised because conflicts-real or imagined-often surface between the supposedly separate editorial and advertising departments. Sharon Thomas sells restaurant ads in Toronto Life. She admits that advertisers often assume their ad will guarantee them a review-and when the editorial side doesn’t comply, they threaten to pull their account. But Thomas insists the ad side can’t put pressure on editorial. The result, sometimes, is lost advertising.
Joseph Hoare, the magazine’s food editor, says that eventually all restaurant advertisers are reviewed, but makes no promises those reviews will appear. “I can think of an example where we sent different people to a place three times, but the results were consistently poor and so we’ve never run a review of that restaurant.”
Toronto Life’s policies are clearly spelled out at the beginning of its review section. Other magazines are not so candid. TO runs reviews by staff writer David Smith, which are followed by a series of capsule reviews written by freelancers. They have no connection to advertising, according to Co-editor and Publisher Bobby Rotenberg.
Goodlife and Toronto, on the other hand, adopt a different approach. Both magazines run formal reviews but eschew capsule review sections. Instead, they sell that space as an advertising feature, which amounts to editorial-style ads surrounded by display ads. Yet both magazines refute the notion that these are advertorials. “They are an advertising feature, there is absolutely no connection with the editorial side whatsoever,” insists Toronto Editor Ray Mason. To Mason’s credit, each page is clearly marked “advertising feature” and the copy is set in a different typeface from the editorial text. Goodlife is a controlled circulation magazine and exists on its ad revenue alone. It is not as careful as Toronto. Its section is labelled “advertising feature” only once, on the first page. And the copy, written by Goodlife’s editorial staff, is set in the same typeface as the rest of the book, if slightly smaller. But Goodlife President Gary Zivot has no trouble with his magazine’s policies: “There are two kinds of publishers: those that are philistines and those that are philistines and hypocrites-we are the philistines, not hypocrites.”
Are readers then putting their trust and money in the hands of philistines? “If you’re looking for somewhere new, you have to trust the reviews,” says Jay Scott. The Star’s Kingsmill suggests people use them merely as a guide and that they stick to the one critic with whom they agree most often-otherwise confusion will be the only reward for compulsive readers.
By this measure, Joanne Kates says, reviewers have a responsibility to “be consistent and reveal their biases.” Kates won’t speak for other reviewers, but she thinks restaurants can be fairly assessed. “If you’re sharp about food, you can usually call it; [for example) you’ll never get a really bad meal at Beaujolais. You might not get a great one, but certainly not a bad one.”
All of this is to say that, yes, maybe the critics can be trusted. And trusted or not, they are certainly read. “That’s because they appeal to a mythical urban lifestyle,” says Joe Allen’s Maxwell. “The first thing the Yuppies do on Saturday morning is turn toJoanne Kates,” adds Beaujolais chef and part-owner Bob Bermann. “Then they look to see if we’ve been bombed by the Russians.”