Editor’s comment July 2016
PUBLISHED: 10:00 16 June 2016 | UPDATED: 10:00 16 June 2016
Should restaurant reviewers declare whether or not they have paid for their meal?
I have never been much of a gardener. When I lived in the Forest of Dean I inherited a greenhouse and set about tomato production with some limited success. To be fair, it was also somewhere to disappear to with a bottle of chilled white and The Archers omnibus on a Sunday morning.
I would still like to dabble I think – some more tomatoes, onions, garlic, herbs, potatoes and carrots. Useful things. Things you can eat. And this is where I struggle a bit with flowers. Pretty, yes; but surely ultimately pointless?
Not so my wife. She approaches our modest patch as Michaelangelo might tackle an empty ceiling. Every square inch of soil - front, back and sides – is called into action. Even the public footpath on our land is dressed to impress. And when the ground can take no more, there are always the pots – dozens of them – and the hanging baskets, window boxes, tin baths...
She’s marauded through Malvern and decimated Dobbies. The chap on the market in Tetbury now drives a Testarossa. When Aristotle wrote that “nature abhors a vacuum”, I have a good idea who he might have had in mind.
When I had the temerity to suggest, some weeks ago, that the garden might actually be ‘full’, I received the sort of withering look that could strip the paint off the Forth Bridge. All I achieved was to drive the daily arrival of another car-load of new plants underground. Illicit irises and contraband clematis were smuggled in under the cover of darkness. Suspect salvias and dodgy dahlias sprang up overnight.
But I have to admit that it was worth it. My wife is a green-fingered genius and the garden is an absolute delight. It’s just that when I was sitting out there the other evening sipping my low-fat, sugar-free organic Vimto, I worked out that the outside of the house was now worth more than the inside...
I know I shouldn’t get annoyed about this, but the plethora of food bloggers who now infest the internet have driven me to raise the subject.
The question is, should restaurant ‘reviewers’ - in print or online - declare whether or not they ate a free meal at the invitation of the establishment or whether they turned up anonymously and paid their way? It matters, you see. If you are there at the invitation of the pub or restaurant concerned, you will inevitably receive special attention. Extra care will be taken over what goes on your plate, fine wines will be consumed, and a smiling chef will pop out for a chat. You will then go away feeling obliged to write nice things about your hosts having enjoyed an experience often unavailable to the regular paying customers.
(My position means that I could eat out for free every day of the week. I don’t, for the reasons above.)
And then there’s the issue of who does the ‘review’ in the first place. Will it be someone whose judgement you can trust or will it be a junior reporter more used to the delights of Nandos who has been given the freebie as a reward for hard work?
(My ertswhile colleagues have also been guilty of this. I still cringe at the memory of one of our now-extinct Midlands magazines sending a vegetarian advertising rep to ‘review’ a new steakhouse.)
I have no quibble with the resturants and pubs that offer these jollies. They quite rightly want all the publicity they can get in a hugely competitive market. And these ‘guests’ are unlikely to be problematic, in person. in print or in pixels.
It is really about a matter of trust. People buy this magazine for information and advice and, when making decisions about where to spend their money, need to know that we are independent and objective.
That is why when reviewing a restaurant or pub, we turn up unannounced and we pay for our meal. We’re proud to state this in print every month. Perhaps it’s time for others to do the same.
Follow Mike on Twitter: @cotslifeeditor