Secrets of a restaurant reviewer

Having reviewed restaurants for state and national publications for over two decades, it’s still a joy to discover new dining experiences to write about and share with the world.

Gone are the days of tearing down establishments; we seek excellence and celebrate it. Authenticity, served with grace in a captivating environment, ignites our passion. When we review, we become the eyes, ears, nose and palate of our readers, aiming to be impressed and to share an exceptional tale. It is our aim to provide readers with an accurate and honest depiction of the entire experience from beginning to end, including the ambience, service quality, cuisine type, and food excellence.

Reviewing starts as early as the booking process! And because most bookings are now online, we often slip in requests like ‘no spring onions’ to gauge how this is dealt with.

When it comes to the score, it’s essentially a numbers game. We evaluate the efficiency and hospitality. We enter with the top score and deduct points as the visit unfolds.

While half the points are reserved for the food, often it’s the minor issues that drag the score down. We look at cleanliness. If a restaurant’s front door is dirty, it raises questions about the hygiene in the kitchen. Clean toilets, emptied bins and spotless surfaces are crucial. I once downgraded a winery restaurant from two hats to one due to filthy toilets, despite the good food.

A warm greeting and a little conversation while being seated is always good to set the tone. Tick. From here, we scrutinise everything from décor to background music. Tables should be properly set, with clean glassware and cutlery. Waiters should be scanning the room to make eye contact. Menus should be easy to read with descriptions of dishes that accurately represent what arrives on the table. Diners expect to get what they order.

Possibly the most important factor in any review is the integrity of the restaurant and its ability to deliver on its promise. If a venue promotes premium service and food but delivers mediocrity, that’s a big failure. Conversely, if a suburban Italian trattoria promotes simple dining but delivers mind-blowing food, we’ll talk it up. Remember the Hong Kong restaurant Tim Ho Wan – all it served were dumplings. But they were so good they earned the humble 20-seat diner one Michelin star.

But the big-ticket item is always the food. It starts with the presentation. Dishes should look appetising, prawns plump, vichyssoise chilled, steaks rested, and gelato and ice cream firm. There should be a sense that the chef has gone to special efforts to make the meal look interesting and special. It’s the detail that we look for – evenly baked golden pastry in a pie, the glisten on a risotto, the delicate garnish on a dessert.

Flavour-wise, we check the seasoning, ensuring there is enough but not too much salt and a good acid balance. We look for quality ingredients. Produce is king. No matter how many years spent working in fine dining, learning all the tricks of the trade, nothing can hide less than top-quality produce.

Wine, cocktails and other drinks are where businesses pick up a lot of profit, but they can also make the visit something special. Staff should know the wines and other drinks back to front. A great wine waiter or sommelier can change the course of an entire evening. There is magic in good storytelling.

This is also true for every dish – if there is a story behind it, we want to know. There are places serving good food, but the passion and hospitality of the wait staff invite us to mark them up because we know they will make people feel special. One of the big turn-offs, no matter how good a night was, is a late bill. When we ask for the bill, we want it now!

Every restaurant, bistro, café, bar and venue that serves food and drink has a story. Hopefully, it is a good one. Whatever the case, it’s our job to tell it.


Richard Cornish

appetiser. senior contributor

As seen in winter 2024

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