Gauthier Soho has ranted against 'food blaggers' - so can we really trust online reviews?

A new type of blogger is expecting complimentary invitations, dinners and drinks in exchange for glowing write-ups

As far as the management at Gauthier Soho is concerned, if you eat in their restaurant, you pay the bill. That will sound totally reasonable to the vast majority of the restaurant-going public, but for a growing number of food bloggers, tweeters, Instagram posters and Yelp reviewers, there is such a thing as a free lunch.

Online food writers who post reviews and pictures of restaurants they visit aren't new and some, such as The Critical Couple, The Lambshank Redemption and Tea Time in Wonderland, are well respected and attract thousands of readers.

But restaurateurs across the country are increasingly noticing something more sinister than a smartphone picture of a pretty pea soup or finely cooked fillet steak.

In hushed tones, restaurant managers use the words "blackmail" and "bribe" to describe occasional bloggers who hand over their cards to the maître d' on arrival in the hope of a "little something extra", and others who brazenly email in advance requesting a "review meal" in exchange for a "positive" judgement online.

The latter, is allegedly, what food blogger Paul Turner of the Hungry Londoner did last week, when he emailed high-end independent restaurant Gauthier Soho in central London, apparently offering the possibility of a "positive review" if the £150-a-head establishment could "arrange a review meal". It would be, he continued, an "ideal promotion".

The hungry blogger – who by day works in the IT industry – hadn't counted on the fighting spirit of the restaurant's head of marketing, James Lewis, though. It was Turner who was promptly "publicised" on Twitter by Lewis, who posted his (at the least) ambiguously worded email, including his mobile number and email address, in a rant against what he calls "food blaggers".

Lewis has since had his Twitter account suspended and Turner has labelled the post an attack on his privacy, but the restaurateur is forthright in defence of his action.

He tells The Independent: "There's been an ugly development in recent times that I call the food blagger, which is someone who uses the food blog as a platform to gain free stuff under the disguise of a review. I can put up with most of this sort of stuff, but what really irks me is what I see as somebody trying to get a free meal in return for a guaranteed positive review... It's a bribe, basically."

The rise of this new type of more demanding food blogger is something that's not gone unnoticed by traditional restaurant critics, including The Independent Magazine's John Walsh, who, like all of this newspaper's critics, pays for his meals.

"The profile of food critics has grown in the last decade and now every foodie with an itch for self-expression wants his own column," says Walsh, who was named restaurant reviewer of the year in the latest Guild of Food Writers awards. "Hence the rise of bloggers and people who write reviews for the TripAdvisor and Yelp websites. Some are very good. Others are afflicted by an ungentlemanly exulting in the power they supposedly wield over a restaurant's fortunes, the poor benighted saps."

Turner, who has since taken his Hungry Londoner website offline, says it was a "private email", and that he pays "for almost all" of his reviews.

However, he seemed to harm his own defence, by adding: "I've been approached by dozens and dozens of restaurants who have offered me free food and I've taken them up on it. And if it's no good, I sometimes don't think it's fair to necessarily write an article at all."

It's only fair to point out that Turner says his blogging is a "hobby". He adds: "I've been badly treated and misunderstood. At the end of the day, I'm just a guy who likes to write about my visits to restaurants."

According to chefs and foodie industry watchers, Turner is far from alone though, posing the question: what can restaurant-goers really trust online?

Be wary of sites that only post glowing reviews and check several sources before you dine, warns Stefan Chomka, the editor of Restaurant magazine. He says: "I speak to chefs all day long and most of them have stories of food blaggers, either people with blogs who approach restaurants in the hope of free meals, or others who use the threat of a bad Trip Advisor review to get another meal for free."

The food blogging world has got so big that there's even an industry conference cashing in on the boom. It's called Food Bloggers Connect and has been running since 2009. This year's event will be held in June in central London, with frustrated food writers paying up to £300 for a series of "skill-building panels" and sessions on how to "grow" their photography, writing and social media skills.

This isn't how food blogging started out, explains Chomka: "When food blogs first came onto the scene, the ideas was that it would be for the non-critic everyman to go a restaurant, pay the bill and then give a brutally honest opinion of what they've eaten. Since then, the industry and public-relations firms have seen the opportunity to court bloggers, so a lot of power they had has been diluted – and almost destroyed in some cases."

The recent Twitter publicity about Hungry Londoner – there are several other blogs with this name that are unconnected to Turner – was followed earlier this week by a rant from the foodie broadcaster and Guardian restaurant critic Jay Rayner.

The not unforthcoming critic took to Twitter to slam an "effing blogger who doesn't think that taking a freebie in any way degrades the validity of their opinion".

The "effing blogger" in question was Dominic Rowntree, who writes Samphire and Salsify, and the row erupted after the newspaper critic and the blogger both reviewed a new restaurant, Lanes of London, giving it widely differing verdicts. Rayner wasn't a fan; Rowntree was.

"My response is and always will be, that shit food is shit food and if something tastes good, then it tastes good," Rowntree tells The Independent. "Quite simple. Whether I was invited along for free or not can't change that".

On Twitter, Rayner said the blogger's defence was "bollocks" and that, effectively, he "was in the pay of the restaurant".

Rowntree, perhaps unsurprisingly, doesn't see it that way: "If there's a restaurant I particularly want to go to and I receive an email inviting me down to eat for free, I don't think it makes me quite as evil or ethic-less as Jay Rayner's making out, to accept the offer.

"As long as I make it clear that I didn't pay for the meal, which I do if I'm ever invited somewhere, then surely it's up to the reader to make their own mind up."

Yet if you delve deeper into this world, there are sinister suggestions floating around that some bloggers may have reportedly expected payment to attend events or post positive reviews. It's a strong allegation and, unsurprisingly, public-relations professionals in the restaurant industry were reluctant to talk to The Independent about it for this article. But it is common practice for restaurants to offer free meals to bloggers.

For restaurant goers, plenty of research, it seems, is the only way forward, according to Lewis at Gauthier Soho. "The average couple eating at Gauthier spends £120 to £150 a head, so before making that decision they'll have checked us out in four of five difference places, including newspaper reviews, a smattering of blogs, Google itself, which is now linked to the Zagat Guide, and on Twitter."

He adds: "Everything is intertwined and bloggers are part of it. It's all about trying to find the ones with integrity. Thankfully, if people are trying to abuse this area, they can't do it for very long because they will be exposed."

One blogger of whom professional critics and restaurateurs both speak highly is Chris Pople of the Cheese and Biscuits blog, who is known for sometimes cutting reviews. He works in market research, but started reviewing restaurants on his blog eight years ago when, he says, "there were no entirely positive reviewers out there".

"It took me a year and a half before anyone offered me anything for free," says the blogger, who estimates that he pays for around 75 per cent of his meals himself. "And I always say at the end of the post who paid for the meal. It wasn't about doing it to get anything for free, I was doing it to write about restaurants. The problem is now that you could start a food blog tomorrow and have your first free meal in a couple of hours. It's completely brazen."

Voices
voicesGood for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, writes Grace Dent
News
The University of California study monitored the reaction of 36 dogs
sciencePets' range of emotions revealed
Life and Style
fashion Designs are part of feminist art project by a British student
Arts and Entertainment
The nomination of 'The Wake' by Paul Kingsnorth has caused a stir
books
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
News
Snoop Dogg pictured at The Hollywood Reporter Nominees' Night in February, 2013
people... says Snoop Dogg
News
i100
Life and Style
food + drinkZebra meat is exotic and lean - but does it taste good?
Arts and Entertainment
Residents of Derby Road in Southampton oppose filming of Channel 4 documentary Immigration Street in their community
tv
Voices
voicesSiobhan Norton on why she eventually changed her mind
Arts and Entertainment
The Tour de France peloton rides over a bridge on the Grinton Moor, Yorkshire, earlier this month
film
News
i100
Extras
indybest
Sport
Scottish singer Susan Boyle will perform at the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony in Glasgow
commonwealth games
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules
filmReview: The Rock is a muscular Davy Crockett in this preposterous film, says Geoffrey Macnab
Life and Style
tech
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    C++ Software Engineer - Hounslow, West London - C++ - to £60K +

    £40000 - £60000 per annum + Pension, Healthcare : Deerfoot IT Resources Limite...

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Visitor Experience volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary role: Old Royal Naval College: To assist the Visitor Experien...

    Telesales Manager. Paddington, London

    £45-£55k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

    Day In a Page

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

    A land of the outright bizarre
    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
    Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

    The worst kept secret in cinema

    A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
    Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
    Why do we have blood types?

    Are you my type?

    All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
    Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

    Honesty box hotels

    Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Why weight of pressure rests easy on Michael Jamieson’s shoulders

    Michael Jamieson: Why weight of pressure rests easy on his shoulders

    The Scottish swimmer is ready for ‘the biggest race of my life’ at the Commonwealth Games
    Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

    The 'scroungers’ fight back

    The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
    Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

    Fireballs in space

    Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
    A Bible for billionaires

    A Bible for billionaires

    Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
    Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

    Paranoid parenting is on the rise

    And our children are suffering because of it
    For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

    Magna Carta Island goes on sale

    Yours for a cool £4m
    Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn