Confessions of a restaurant critic

Tracey MacLeod has been dining out for a living for a decade. It’s a tough job, but someone’s got to do it...
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Indy Lifestyle Online

It was meant to be a one-off. Ten years ago, I stepped in as holiday cover for my friend Helen Fielding, who was then writing restaurant reviews for The Independent on Sunday. They sent me to Pied à Terre, where the fiery young chef Tom Aikens had just won a second Michelin star. My companion was the legendary Sharon, who, like me, made regular appearances in Helen's reviews. We marvelled at the intricate excesses of Aikens' cuisine, and Shazzer's rogue hairpiece formed the centrepiece of what seems to me now an altogether frivolous and ill-informed piece of writing.

I ended with a modest sign-off about Helen's companions stepping back into the shadows. But it wasn't to be. A few days after the piece ran, Michael Watts, then editor of this magazine, rang to ask me to join the team as a regular reviewer. I hesitated for ... ooh, at least 30 seconds, before accepting.

After all, who hasn't secretly fantasised about becoming a restaurant critic? It's right up there along with mattress tester and chocolate buyer as one of the dream jobs. The whole cloak-and-dagger side is immensely alluring, like being an MI5 agent with an expense account. It panders to some of our basest instincts – gluttony, cruelty, and the desire to eat and drink free things. And most of us at some point eat out, and have critical thoughts. So how hard could it be?

The answer, as I discovered fairly early on, was actually, quite hard. OK, it's not brain surgery, but you do have to do several things simultaneously; eat, have a critical opinion about what you're eating and somehow write it down without being noticed. And you do quite rapidly run out of synonyms for "delicious". My first review was of Momo, a fashionable new Moroccan restaurant. Our waitress dropped a scalding tagine over our table. The owner came out doing a funny dance and holding a birthday cake for George Lucas. There was no shortage of material. And still, it took me about three days to write.

I was aware, then as now, that the majority of the Indy's readers would probably never go to the restaurant in question. And so I tried to strike a balance between writing about the food, conveying the atmosphere, and including enough jokes to make the piece interesting to everyone. Initially unconfident in my food knowledge, I would cast my reviews like playlets, so that if all else failed I could write about my guests.

When County Hall, the GLC's old headquarters reopened as a luxury hotel, I invited Ken Livingstone to review the restaurant with me. I was hoping for scorn and bitterness, but he rather liked his meal, and really liked his wine; our subsequent tour of the building passed in something of a blur, and ended in a surreal rooftop encounter with a town cryer. Mel Brooks took me to his favourite restaurant in London, Chinatown's New Diamond, where we feasted on razor clams and fish lips, and the famously surly waiters lined up to shake Mel's hand as we left. "We'll be back! In an hour!" was Mel's parting shot.

Over the years, as my confidence and knowledge grew, I relied less on my guests, though I always tried to match them up with the venue, to give it the best possible chance to shine. And it has been an amazing period to be an observer of our changing food scene. In 1997, "gastropubs" were still new enough to be mentioned in inverted commas. Enormous super-restaurants, such as Mezzo, were scooping up punters, amid fears that smaller individual concerns would be driven out of business. Marco Pierre White reigned supreme over an expanding empire, while Gordon Ramsay was kicking his heels as consultant to Lee Chapman and Lesley Ash's Teatro.

Ten years later, the general standard of eating out has improved beyond measure. Gastropubs have become the British equivalent of brasseries, allowing talented chefs to set up on their own, and introducing a new generation of diners to the pleasure of eating good food in a relaxed setting. Far from gobbling up the minnows, the gastrodomes have struggled; now it's smaller, independent restaurants such as Arbutus and Great Queen Street that are setting the standard. And Gordon Ramsay is officially King of the World.

Looking back through my old reviews, the most striking thing is how many of the restaurants I wrote about in the first few years have since closed. (I don't think it was cause and effect.) Momo is still going strong, and still fashionable, 10 years on. But my subsequent destinations – Dakota, Teatro, R K Stanleys, MPW Brasserie, Dave and Busters – are all long gone. Mind you, that last one was a hybrid diner and arcade games complex in a Solihull leisure park, so fair enough.

The survival rate hasn't improved over the years; if anything, the turnover is even more relentless. In March this year, I reviewed Mocoto, a glamorous Brazilian restaurant that had just opened in Knightsbridge, after a five-year, £5m refit. By August, it had ceased trading. Even more shamingly, from my point of view, was the new child-friendly restaurant in Hampstead I visited last year, and pronounced "a copper-bottomed, gold-plated, no-brainer of a commercial prospect". It closed within weeks.

Why some restaurants make it and others don't is usually down to other factors than whether the food is good. The wave of fashionable, high-design restaurants that swept through London, led by Damien Hirst's Pharmacy, suffered from built-in obsolescence; if something is fashionable, it is inevitably going to go out of fashion. The exceptions are places like Nobu and Hakkasan, where superb food lies at the heart of the whole operation. Mind you, I look back at my review of Hakkasan and realise with a rush of blood to the cheeks that I gave it a luke-warm write-up. I've probably been back there more often than anywhere else I've written about.

Which brings me to the one question I'm probably asked most often, when I tell people what I do. What's your favourite restaurant? And the ghastly truth is that I don't have one. It's horses for courses, and by the time I've gone through all the variables – area, budget, occasion – my questioner's eyes have usually glazed over and they're searching the room for someone else to talk to. If I try to answer more directly, I can only come up with the same names as everyone else – The Ivy, Scott's or The Wolseley. Well, yeah, obviously, I can see them thinking. Is that it?

Another question I'm often asked: do you choose where you're going yourself? Yes, since the Dave and Buster's episode (I was sick in my hotel room afterwards, did I mention that?). Sometimes it will be a newsworthy opening, sometimes the venue will be dictated by a trip I'm taking to another town, and sometimes it will be a newish restaurant that's starting to make waves. With our esteemed food editor, Madeleine Lim, as referee, my opposite number John Walsh and I slug it out for the most tempting assignments. The keen-eyed among you may have noticed that he exercises full dominion over south London gastropubs, while the Suffolk coastline may be a tad over-represented in my own back-catalogue.

Very occasionally, in desperation, I'll throw myself into an experience that is clearly going to be appalling, just to have something to write about. Which is how I came to endure a meal of cobra risotto, flash-grilled zebra and ant rice in a now defunct (obviously) restaurant in Holborn. That answers another of my FAQs, by the way: "What's the worst meal you've eaten in the line of duty?"

Another one is "do the restaurants know you're coming?" To which I respond, tetchily, "Of course not!" I book under a different name, usually that of the guest I'm meeting. Unless it's my brother. As for whether I ever get recognised, it has happened only a handful of times over the years, and usually at too late a stage for it to make much difference to the experience. Restaurant publicists apparently furnish their clients with a handy guide to all the critics, complete with a rogues' gallery of photos. But thanks to a succession of by-line pictures that have portrayed me as no-lipped velociraptor, off-duty nun and the current one, Modigliani's tubercular aunt, there's only a slim chance of anyone making the connection.

My cover is more likely to be blown not by an alert maître d' but by one of my dopey guests loudly saying, "I suppose you'll want us all to order something different FOR THE REVIEW?" That's them off the list of companions, along with the friend who only ever wanted to order seared tuna, and the so-called friend who defected to be the companion of another newspaper's food critic. If being a restaurant reviewer is a dream job, being a reviewer's companion is even more enviable. You don't have to plan anything, or hide a notebook under a table, or wrestle to find a new way of saying "delicious". You just have to turn up, chow down, and offer the odd pithy observation.

My longest-serving companion, Sharon, still turns out and gives good quotes, though the frisky hair-piece has long since been retired. And Harry, my consort and most frequent companion, has raised his game, after an early blunder (he hissed "leave me alone, I'm trying to eat!" when I was trying to get his opinion on a Thai dipping sauce). After a long period on the bench, he now knows what's expected of him, and dutifully orders the most outré items on the menu without needing to be told.

After 10 years, I keep expecting to run out of things to write. Then I look down the list of forthcoming openings and see what's coming up – Simon Rogan of L'Enclume opening in Henley, Alan Yau's new Japanese restaurant in Mayfair, grand hotel ventures from Richard Corrigan and Alain Ducasse – and the excitement returns. This year has already seen some outstandingly good openings, and gratifyingly, many of my favourites have been outside London.

That's another great thing about this job – it means I've been able to eat my way around Britain, from the Seafood Restaurant in Padstow to the Seafood Restaurant in St Andrews. I may not have a favourite restaurant, but I've had memorable experiences at the legendary El Bulli in Spain, where theatre and gastronomy come together in a synaesthetic feast, and at The Fat Duck in Bray, one of the few places I've reviewed twice. And, at the other end of the scale, I've returned again and again to Au Lac, a Vietnamese local in Highbury, to enjoy the chilli-garlic squid – probably my desert island dish.

It's been fascinating to track the progress of that talented group of entrepreneurs who have the elusive gift of creating successful restaurant after successful restaurant; people like Alan Yau, Oliver Peyton and the Panjabi sisters. Not chefs, but superb restaurateurs who have built businesses around giving diners what they didn't quite know they wanted yet. Equally pleasing has been the rehabilitation of British food, spurred by champions like Fergus Henderson and our own Mark Hix. Ten years ago, British food was in the doldrums; now it's positively fashionable.

It's been a privilege to share space with Mark and The Independent's brilliant team of specialist food and drink writers, past and present. Thanks for having me for the past 10 years. It's been ... delicious.