The ink had barely dried on food writer for The Australian John Lethlean’s review of Hill of Grace (or Hill of Disgrace as no doubt it’s been dubbed) when up popped MKR contestants-turned-restaurant-reviewers Chloe James and Kelly Ramsay in a fabricated furore over an unflattering review in the west. Closer to home and just up the street in Byron Bay I was wrestling with my own restaurant rules as I weighed up the $39.60 cost of a casual Sunday breakfast for one in a tourist town.
Last weekend John Lethlean summed up his not so sumptuous experience with this: “I’m not sure the world is ready for this particular fusion just yet. HoG occupies some kind of sad, ill-informed contemporary fine dining void; it’s like the rest of the restaurant world doesn’t exist. I’m trying hard to think of someone I’d recommended it to. I just can’t.”
Previously I asked Necia Wilden, food editor for The Australian what she thought about the rise of cash for comment food bloggers. She had this to say: “What if the readers knew that the blogger was compromised?” Necia added that when “John Lethlean writes a critical review in The Weekend Australian Magazine – and I mean a really critical review, a hatchet job – our readership goes through the roof. Because everyone loves a “bad” review” (Wilden 2015).
Last year I had the pleasure of profiling food critic Rita Erlich above. We discussed the valuation of a restaurant versus the evolution of how we eat. “There is no entrance process” she told me. “Restaurant reviewing is not about evaluated knowledge. For example, TripAdvisor and Urban spoon are platforms of social approval. “I like it’ or “will I like it” are the attraction drivers. Public opinion is greater than critical knowledge. What’s wanted has changed”, said Rita who was always wary of purple prose on menus, and verbs that included something ‘resting atop a nest of ‘ or ‘cascading’. “The way we eat has changed, chefs are now shuffling around dietary requirements.” according to Rita. In 2007, Shannon Bennett asked me to help his kitchen staff at Vue de Monde understand the rise of gluten-free trends, food sensitivities and other precursors to clean eating.
We need a benchmark. More importantly, the consumer needs to bring in a few more pointers for a comparative perspective so they can make an informed analysis. In 2012 I was judging Northern NSW restaurants for the Restaurant and Catering Association. The fine-dining ranking system used extensive criteria of which I have selected a few feature points below to consider when dining in a cafe or a restaurant – because the delineation can be ever so slight. Cafes serving cafe food at restaurant prices and restaurants serving good bistro food with napery and decent cutlery under $30 for the main course
Ask yourself how many times you have self-served cutlery from a dusty canister on your table and paid over $25 for your breakfast? Is there an inequity or are you happy to pay for the ‘Hipster Effect’?
Should you pay more for a view at restaurants like Bennelong or Rae’s? Perhaps, yet the food, service and ambience should do the view and the price tag justice. Seaside dining in Australia is potentially anchored in trepidation or buoyed with optimism. An ocean of promise delivers hope that the food and service may match a breathtaking view is often dampened by shallow service or mediocre food.
What determines a great regional restaurant? Is it the location, produce, service or the food?
Here’s a handy list to keep safe, especially if you’re going to rate on social media. More importantly, if you’re in the flavour game, please take these pointers into consideration. My favourite no-no is lightweight cutlery collapsing into the centre of the dinner plate when it should sit comfortably on the rim of the plate once the diner has finished eating. Glassware, lighting and clean loos are of course essential elements. Just don’t tick these off while you’re eating! Leave your phone behind and truly enjoy the whole experience.
- Phone service on booking
- Reception on arrival
- Comfortable greeting on arrival
- Quality of reserved table service
- Level of help to and at the table
- Level and quality of the set table
- The way the menu & wine list are presented
- Level of pre dinner drink service
- Quality of crockery
- Quality of cutlery
- Quality of napery
- Quality of glassware
- Overall appearance of the table
- Quality of seating provided
- Quality of the decor
- Overall level of atmosphere
- Suitable lighting
- Menu is physically well presented
- Menu has a wide variety of dishes
- Menu caters for vegetarians
- Offerings well-described
- Menu is innovative/traditional
- Overall quality of foods used
- Quality of food presentation
- Level of taste satisfaction
- Degree to which description was met
- Degree of suitable temperature of dish
- Degree to which selection served correctly
- Degree to which selection cleared promptly
- Level of pre-dinner drinks provision
- Physical quality of wine list available
- Range and quality of drinks provided
- Appriopriateness of drinks provided
- Relative value in cost of drinks
- Level of pre-service drink care
- Correct opening of wines (back in the day of corks!)
- Continued quality of wine service
- Continued drink attention
- Supply of waters and soft drinks
- Overall level of food service
- Overall level of drink service
- Level of other services
- Smooth manner of account payment
- Correct attention on leaving
- Quality of toilet facilities
- Quality of drinking water
Samantha Gowing is a green tea drinking chef, nutritionist, mentor, author, blogger and former judge for the Restaurant & Catering Association NSW. She holds a Diploma of Health Science and Master of Gastronomic Tourism degree from Le Cordon Bleu. This is an unsolicited blog post for the purpose of better food service standards. No chefs were harmed in the process.