Inside Story: The nation's finest food critics

Their words can make or break a restaurant's reputation, but which of them really know their chips? Compton Miller sinks his teeth into the nation's finest food critics

Giles Coren, 35

After a rocky start this former gossip columnist has found his niche, writing sarky prose, alas without Jonathan Meades' knowledgeable panache. But avoid asking him to cook a cassoulet or a bouillabaisse. The Cricklewood-born jester's humour sometimes runs away with him. Was formerly The Times's gossip columnist but made too many Bin Laden jokes after 9/11.

Background: Westminster School and Keble College, Oxford.

Cruellest review: "From that point on I was too angry to eat. Sorry, I know this is meant to be a restaurant review" (Nul points, The Bull in Highgate).

Don't mention: jokes about nepotism and his father Alan Coren.

THE INDEPENDENT ON SUNDAY

Terry Durack, 55

The jovial former Sydney Morning Herald critic is incisive, insightful and magisterial. He has written more cookbooks than his rivals. The opera-loving truck-driver's son knows why sauces curdle and critics go native with self-indulgent burblings. His wife is The Times's cookery editor Jill Dupleix.

Background: Elwood High School, Melbourne.

Cruellest review: "The braised turbot was like eating takeaway kedgeree into which your partner's takeaway Thai has leaked" (Petrus, Knightsbridge).

Don't mention: the scales. "I was over 18 stone, but I've shed a lot of weight recently."

EVENING STANDARD

Fay Maschler, 60

Rivals are already queuing to succeed this foodie doyenne when her contract is up for renewal in 2007. Her reviews can make or break a restaurant as effectively as Clive Barnes once did Broadway musicals. After 33 years, this former J Walter Thompson copywriter has retained her critical edge, but has lost her crucial anonymity.

Background: Convent of the Sacred Heart, Greenwich, Connecticut.

Cruellest review: "It's difficult, if not impossible, to imagine anyone conjuring up a restaurant, even in their sleep, where the food in its mediocrity comes so close to inedible" (the now defunct Chittagong Charlie, Golders Green).

Don't mention: why she seems constantly on holiday.

THE SPECTATOR

Deborah Ross, 43

The Esther Rantzen of resto reviewing was once a Daily Mail "killer bimbo" but graduated to self-obsessed celebrity interviewing. This north London solicitor's daughter hates pretentious menus, small portions on large plates and entrees layered in towers. She would rather review a Crouch End greasy spoon than a "poncey" Sketch or Claridge's.

Background: Whitehills Comprehensive, Cricklewood, and Leeds University.

Cruellest review: "The reception and bar area look like the sort of place where Russian mafioso and Japanese businessmen might choose their hookers" (Le Gavroche, Mayfair).

Don't mention: her irascible predecessor David Fingleton.

THE SUNDAY TIMES

A A Gill, 51

With his receding hairline, gold chains and black Bentley turbo, he is the Phil Collins of rezzy critics. His reviews seldom bother with in-depth analysis or venture further north than The Ivy. But this dyslexic TV producer's son has a loyal following that enjoys his laboured jokes and stream-of-consciousness scrawls.

Background: St Christopher's School, Letchworth, and St Martin's School of Art.

Cruellest review: "It is, all things considered, quite the worst restaurant in London" (San Lorenzo, Knightsbridge).

Don't mention: the Welsh, whom he insulted as "dark, ugly little trolls ... you can easily drive from Cardiff to Anglesey without ever stimulating a taste bud."

THE SUNDAY TELEGRAPH

Matthew Norman, 41 (also of this parish)

His sly humour is in the tradition of American Vogue's legendary critic Jeffrey Steingarten. He slams Gary Rhodes's "Pot Noodle-flavoured" mullet and Sir Terence Conran's "chicken à la iron filings". The boisterous, poker-playing solicitor's son wishes he earned A A Gill's reputed £250,000 a year.

Background: Westminster School and Bristol University.

Cruellest review: "Did they mean to create one of the world's worst restaurants or was it all a tragic accident?" (Mulberry Restaurant, Belgravia).

Don't mention: Richard Shepherd, who threatened legal action after Norman described Shepherd's in Westminster as "among the very worst restaurants in Christendom".

EVENING STANDARD

Toby Young, 41

Cocky, cheeky and irrepressible, he is the latest editor's pet to win the job every journo covets. This is just another notch in his Chauncey Gardiner progress to world media domination. The life peer's son boasts that his brief is to "entertain rather than bore readers".

Background: William Ellis Comprehensive, Camden, Brasenose College, Oxford, and Fulbright Scholar, Harvard.

Cruellest review: "One of the most unprepossessing spaces in London ... my wife's endive, pear and blue cheese salad tasted like sick" (Graze, Maida Vale).

Don't mention: Young's embarrassing acting debut in the West End adaptation of his book How to Lose Friends and Alienate People.

THE FINANCIAL TIMES

Nick Lander, 53

Overshadowed by his wife, wine writer Jancis Robinson, he is the only critic to have owned his own restaurant, L'Escargot in Soho. A stickler for detail, balance and high standards, the laid-back former commodity broker invented the much-copied "Lunch for a Fiver".

Background: Manchester Grammar School, Jesus College, Cambridge and Manchester Business School.

Cruellest review: "A joyless experience that reminded me of a funeral with the waiters carrying plates as though they were pallbearers bearing a coffin" (Per Se, a trendy $300-a-head Manhattan restaurant).

Don't mention: Gordon Ramsay ("he's massively overrated").

THE INDEPENDENT

Tracey MacLeod, 44

Moonlighting from her day job as agent for Natasha Kaplinsky and others, she refuses to compete in the vituperation, cruelty and "cleverness" stakes with certain ego-obsessed rivals. She sticks to Harden's three basics: food, ambience and service. She also campaigns for more female chefs.

Background: Ipswich High School and Durham University.

Cruellest review: the oeuf en gelée was "the most memorably nasty dish of my eating career" (Le Coq d'Argent, City of London).

Don't mention: Lime, a Shoreditch bar-restaurant ("the only place I've ever walked out of ... it was very noisy, full of boozy City lads and not how the press release described it.")

THE SUNDAY TIMES

Michael Winner, 69

Is he Britain's most conceited, contrary and rudest critic? Real journos think so, but readers love his arrival at hotels by private plane or Bentley and his penchant for wallet-breaking clarets. "I don't know about food, but I know what I like," confesses the name-dropping Death Wish film director.

Background: St Christopher's School, Letchworth, and Downing College, Cambridge.

Cruellest review: "The food is grotesque, so awful as to be almost indescribable and an absolute disgrace" (The Lanesborough Hotel, Belgravia).

Don't mention: the blonde kiss'n'tell starlet who "outed" his baggy underpants.

THE OBSERVER

Jay Rayner, 38

While no Craig Brown, he writes about food with élan. Shuns the self-congratulatory Marco Pierre White/Gordon Ramsay/Vineet Bhatia fan clubs, preferring to make his own discoveries. The presenter of Radio 4's The Food Quiz is the only critic to have been D-noticed for trespassing on matters of security.

Background: Haberdashers Askes School, Elstree, and Leeds University.

Cruellest review: "I cannot describe it as the worst restaurant in Britain, but only because I haven't been to them all" (Jaan, the Strand).

Don't mention: that his mother is former agony aunt Claire Rayner ("otherwise people get preconceptions about me").

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