The secret life of a restaurant reviewer

The nominations are in, the ratings have been done, and the editorial panel is right now roaming the country to review for the next Eat Out 500, the power list of the best restaurants in South Africa. But what’s it actually like to professionally review a restaurant? Is it non-stop glamour and indulgence? We take you on a behind-the-scenes look at the secret life of an Eat Out reviewer.

The mission

To dine anonymously at a designated restaurant and write a descriptive, useful and fair review.

The tools

A ferocious appetite, an experienced palate, willingness to try new things (like chicken hearts or pickled tongue), the ability to keep a secret, clothing with a bit of give in the waist, a credit card and camera phone.

Write the review while the details are still fresh.

Write the review while the details are still fresh.

The brief

A few weeks prior to D-day, call the restaurant in question to make a reservation. Use your first name only; if asked, provide a fake second name. Confirm the booking the day before. At no point do you reveal your identity as an Eat Out reviewer; that’s crucial.

Next, do a background check. Has the chef or owner recently moved from another restaurant, city or country? What is their philosophy? What is the restaurant aiming to do? Keep this in mind when you visit.

On the appointed day, don your disguise (high heels, a collared shirt or fake moustache), prepare your tools and enter the restaurant. You may or may not have an accomplice dining with you.

Ensure your accomplices are the sharing type.

Ensure your accomplices are the sharing type.

Scan the perimeter and assess the lighting level, furniture, music, décor and general vibe. Examine the cutlery, crockery and linen.

Study the drinks menu and choose the appropriate tipple. If it’s a Mexican restaurant, assess the tequila situation. Ditto for the coffee at a café, craft beers or shakes at a burger bar, lassis at an Indian eatery, or wine at a fine-dining restaurant. In the case of the latter, look at the origin of the wines, the prices, selection by the glass and per varietal, and any unusual items. Ask the sommelier for suggestions and opt for the wine pairing if it’s on offer (and if you have a ride home!).

Next, the food. You’ll need to order starters, mains and dessert. (Always dessert.) Avoid unsustainable fish species and unseasonal ingredients, but take note of them. Remember noteworthy producers and suppliers. Ask about any chefs’ specials or signature dishes.

Take note of the friendliness, knowledge and efficiency of the staff. Are you welcomed at the door? Are your questions answered satisfactorily? Do you feel looked after? Service can make or break a meal.

If you can, surreptitiously take photographs (with the shutter sound off) so as to avoid writing tell-tale notes. Alternatively, risk being rude and type brief notes on your phone at the table.

Now – and this is incredibly important – thoroughly enjoy your meal. Inhale deeply, chew with relish and savour everything slowly. Take your time. While you’re doing so, pay attention to the quality, seasonality and preparation of the ingredients, the balance of flavours in the dishes, portion sizes and presentation. Also taste what your dining companion orders. (It’s the least they can do; you’re paying, after all.)

Quietly pay the bill, leaving a good tip, and disappear into the night.

The execution

When you get back to HQ, think back on your experience and write while your memories are still fresh. (Although New York Times reviewer Pete Wells notes that if an element doesn’t indelibly stick in your mind, it’s not worth writing about: “It’s more or less parsley”.) Be honest and give constructive criticism. Think of useful, original ways to describe the food – ‘to die for’ doesn’t cut it. Also consider the value for money. It doesn’t have to be cheap, but do you get what you pay for?

Always order dessert.

Always order dessert.

It’s now safe to reveal your identity, so you’re free to phone the restaurant to do reconnaissance, find out about specific dishes or ingredients, and chat to the owner and chef if required. But this is strictly optional; you might dine there again in future, and you don’t want to elicit any special treatment. Chefs and restaurateurs are not your friends; they just want honesty, as do Eat Out readers.

Finally, write your review, relishing all the delicious details and sharing the remarkable titbits. Submit your review, along with your invoice, to the commissioning editor.

Mission accomplished!

Now you need to keep fit for duty while you await your next mission. How? By eating out, often and indiscriminately, of course.

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