Food

Fare game: life as The Spectator’s restaurant critic

24 April 2020

11:00 PM

24 April 2020

11:00 PM

A fictional Spectator restaurant critic called Forbes McAllister appeared on Knowing Me, Knowing You with Alan Partridge. He was played by Patrick Marber and was obviously based on Keith Waterhouse — bow tie, mad eyes — even if Waterhouse was never the restaurant critic at this magazine. McAllister was on TV to show off Lord Byron’s duelling pistols ‘and a lock of his stupid hair’. He bought them to annoy Michael Winner, then restaurant critic at theSunday Times.

‘Are you entirely motivated by hatred?’ Partridge asked McAllister. It was his best ever question. ‘Yes, I think I am,’ said McAllister. ‘Rather perceptive of you. I hate you.’ Partridge then shot McAllister with a duelling pistol, and he died.

I am proud of that; and there are other privileges to restaurant criticism. I was allowed into Rules just for pudding, after I explained I had eaten at Moro in Farringdon and needed golden syrup pudding to recover. I was at Moro stalking Tony Gallagher who had just left the editorship of the Daily Telegraph for a job in a kitchen. Bryan Cranston of Breaking Bad touched me as I ate in a restaurant on the stage of the National Theatre during Network. I ate in Prince Charles’s gazebo at Highgrove when he wasn’t there.


My mother uses my name to get reservations. Corbin and King, the best restaurateurs in London — the Delaunay, the Wolseley, Fischer’s — know her game but they let her get away with it because they are the best restaurateurs in London. I have done specialist chip restaurants, specialist lasagne restaurants, specialist cereal restaurants and too many specialist steak restaurants. The best is Beast, even if it stole its aesthetic from the Saw franchise. The worst food I ever had was in Trump Tower, swiftly followed by Farmacy and its plant-based hot chocolate. My greatest regret was my failure to get into the specialist Cadbury Creme Egg restaurant. I think about it when I am insomniac.

It is rare that I review a restaurant that I think you will not like, or at least enjoy for its absurdity, although I made an exception for the naked pop-up Bunyadi, which I visited because my husband liked the idea of a naked waitress in a fake glade in a former pub in south London. He got a naked bald man from Belgium, raw meat, and berries.

It is rare that I am insulted, although Keith McNally threw me out of Balthazar in Covent Garden for smoking a vape. I didn’t mind. I hated him. Balthazar is like Café Rouge, but worse, and the worse the restaurant, the better the review. It’s hard to write well about perfection, and harder to write well about mediocrity. That is how I defend my odder choices, such as Center Parcs. You are not eating the review. You are reading it. I’m not going to force you to go on Vikings’ River Splash at Legoland. I’m still glad I went to Pedro’s Tex-Mex Cantina in Norwich after they were banned from UEA for handing out sombreros.

I would love to bring you a review from restaurants that existed in 1828, but I have done them all at least twice and some three times — Wiltons, Rules — and they are closed for now. (Incidentally, HIDE on Piccadilly is doing take-out. Ollie Dabbous is the best chef of his generation, so his take-out will be singular. If you do it, please write to me and tell me how it was.)

I could have done the Admiral Benbow pub in Chapel Street in Penzance, which was ancient by 1828, and probably full of Spectator readers moaning about France, but there is a full-size papier-mâché pirate on the roof and, considering the gravity of the issue, I didn’t feel it had the right sense of occasion.

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