Confessions of a restaurant reviewer

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The life of a professional restaurant reviewer is all swanky meals, lovely wine and being seen at the newest restaurants, right? Not exactly – the reality isn’t quite that glamorous. We asked three of our critics about the job, which foods they can’t stand but have to eat anyway, and how to pick the best dish on the menu.

(We’ve used fictitious names so they can continue to visit restaurants incognito. Eat Out critics dine anonymously and unannounced, and they pay for their meals in full.)

EO: Do you ever get tired of eating in restaurants?

John: Only when the number of visits are too condensed – otherwise I love everything about restaurants and chefs, they inspire me!

Jane: Not really; I love eating out! We hardly ever did when I was a child, so I think that might be why.

June: Yes, when I go out too often.

EO: How do you protect your anonymity?

John: I have often used different names and once or twice have even worn a wig for fun!

Jane: I don’t think I’m that well-known so it’s usually ok, but if I think my name will be recognised, I use a pseudonym. It does get difficult when places only do online bookings and you have to provide an email address!

June: Hehe. I think I’m generally anonymous to most restaurants/chefs.

EO: Is there any food that you don’t like, but that you eat anyway because you have to?

John: Sous vide eggs. I once went to the bathroom and asked my husband to get rid of it, so that the chef would be none the wiser.

Jane: I really don’t like soft eggs, so the 63-degree egg trend is a bit of a struggle. I’m also not a fan of avo, so if there is any on the plate, I discreetly pass it to whoever I’m eating with.

June: I don’t enjoy caviar and I am not really a fan of venison. But I’ll eat it if it’s incredibly cooked!

EO: What’s the number one misconception that your friends and family have about your job?

John: Every meal is a free lunch. The truth is that it’s not free, but it also comes with a lot of responsibility and dedication. And all the food dished up isn’t necessarily delicious!

Jane: That all I do is eat out! I spend a lot of time behind my desk. Writing a review also takes time. I need to think about things for a while before I start writing.

June: That I just post about my meals on social media.

EO: What do you cook for yourself at home when you have a night off?

John: I love dhal.

Jane: My husband cooks, usually things like a really good steak, on a braai in summer. Simple food. We’re also big fans of chicken schnitzels!

June: Chicken schnitzel with a salad or homemade sweet-potato chips.

Photo by Mayte Marin on Unsplash

EO: What’s the part of your job you really dislike? 

John: Late nights! I could do a breakfast tasting menu easily.

Jane: It can be very time-consuming. Pro tip: If it’s an eight-course tasting menu, go early if you want to get home before midnight! Especially on a weeknight.

June: Late nights are hard, because you still need to get up the next day and go to work like you ordinarily would and function like a normal human.

EO: What’s the most bizarre thing to ever happen to you in a restaurant?

John: Ooh, I have many, though more embarrassing than bizarre! Once I snorted red wine at The Test Kitchen as I miscalculated the size of the glass to the ratio of wine. A different time I swirled a glass of water thinking it was wine (it was in a wine glass!) in front of the sommelier at Catharina’s.

One of my very first visits to a fine-dining restaurant was at Laghams in London, where I ate snails in shells. I couldn’t clasp the slippery buggers with the silver forceps, so one shot across the room and landed under a guest’s table.

June: I went to review a place in a mall once and I arrived to find that they had somehow worked out who I was and closed the whole place to the public – it was just me, my plus one and the owner. She made me eat every single thing on the menu. Everything. I felt terribly ill, like I was actually going to explode, and each time I refused, she would force me to take a bite. She then asked me to rate all the dishes on a sheet of paper in front of her. It was crazy.

EO: What’s your tip for picking the best thing on the menu?

Jane: Don’t pick the special of the day, it’s often not an accurate barometer. Go with something that’s been on the menu for a while (ask), so you can get a good idea of what they do well.

June: Do your research on the restaurant’s best dishes before you go. And be familiar with what the chef is known for or where his passion lies. Is it in desserts? Seafood? Making sauces?

EO: Which food trends do you wish would just die?

John: Smudges, smears and too many elements on the plate

Jane: The smear on the plate. It’s never a good look, especially if it’s brown! Stop that.

All Eat Out critics dine unannounced and pay for their meals in full. Judges for the Eat Out Mercedes-Benz Restaurant Awards remain anonymous to restaurants and each other, with the exception of chief judge Margot Janse.

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