Restaurant critics throughout the UK are united in condemnation of a jury which upheld a libel action by a restaurateur.
Irish News restaurant critic Caroline Workman, in a 2000 review of Belfast’s Goodfellas restaurant, described staff as unhelpful, the cola as flat and the chicken marsala as ‘so sweet as to be inedible’.
Calling the review ‘a hatchet job’, Goodfellas owner Ciaran Convery sued. The jury agreed Workman’s words were ‘defamatory, damaging and hurtful’ and awarded the restaurateur £25,000 in damages.
The paper is appealing the verdict and is backed by the National Union of Journalists.
Decanter’s restaurant critic Brian St Pierre said, ‘This says more about juries than about restaurants or critics. It’s easier to convince a jury that a reviewer has been unfair than it is to argue the finer points of free speech.’
Guardian newspaper critic Matthew Norman said, ‘To say there is an issue of free speech here is so blazingly obvious it almost goes without saying.’
St Pierre – along with other veteran critics like the Observer’s Jay Rayner – said he would not be watering down his reviews as a result of this action.
‘If AA Gill isn’t getting sued then the rest of us are safe,’ he said, referring to a critic famous for his acerbic reviews. He once described San Lorenzo as ‘quite the worst restaurant in London, maybe the world… [serving] horrendous food, grudgingly…’
St Pierre added, ‘The restaurant is asking for money. As long as we are paying them we have the right to comment. Sometimes I think perhaps this or that adverb is a bit strong, but this is free speech.’
Michelin-starred restaurateur Richard Corrigan of Lindsay House in London – described by critic Matthew Fort as ‘one of the outstanding culinary talents of a generation’ – agreed.
‘We invite people to eat our food and we invite them to say what they feel. If critics fear to speak their minds then it is a very sad day for restaurant criticism,’ he told decanter.com.
Corrigan had one caveat. ‘I am happy to take a drubbing from the top critics. But if a stand-in reviewer out to make a reputation for himself said something I thought was unfair, I would go after him.’
Shaun Hill of the Glasshouse in Worcester, whose former restaurant the Merchant House in Ludlow garnered lavish praise (including being named Decanter’s restaurant of the year), said he had had his share of ‘kickings’ from the critics.
‘But I cannot imagine ever suing. A good writer can put you down without saying anything actionable. Criticism is part of the excitement of the whole business of running a restaurant. You have to take it on the chin.’
Written by Adam Lechmere