Confession (do feel free to brace): I don’t like pubs. I know it’s virtually the law, if you’re British, to wax misty-eyed about the good old boozer, its role in the community, its traditions and heritage and history. But I hate the things. I was reminded recently how sacrilegious it is to voice this opinion: after a typically stellar lunch at A. Wong in Pimlico, one of our party suggested we repair to the pub. My horror was palpable. He who suggested it was bemused: what on earth did I have against pubs?
OK, I said, let me count the ways: I don’t like beer. I particularly don’t like warm beer. It was a suffocatingly hot day, and the idea of lurking inside a dark, whiffy-carpeted room — or worse still, outside on grimy, fume-clogged London pavement with the smoking fraternity, zero by way of shady umbrellas, on cheap metal furniture searing scorch marks onto my thighs — did not appeal. They don’t do decent wines (well, hello, mass-produced pinot grigio) or cocktails properly. Even an acceptable gin and tonic (quality ingredients, big glass, generous wedge of lemon or lime, plenty of good ice — yes, there’s bad ice out there) seems beyond most of them. And don’t speak to me about the food: the miasma of elderly fish ‘n’ chips that seeps out of that carpet, the pies, the bloody roast dinners. (Sure, there’s been a huge improvement with the proliferation of the gastropub, but I’d still rather be in, well, a restaurant.) Basically, there’s something off-puttingly Brexity about pubs.
This is nothing to do with age or wimpishness: even as a wild, skint student I’d save up to go elsewhere. It’s just a matter of taste. Here’s the thing, I have nothing against pubs. I’m happy they continue to exist in the absence of my custom, appreciate the role they play and am dejected when I hear rumours of their imminent demise. Just because I don’t like something doesn’t mean there’s anything inherently wrong with it, just that it doesn’t work for me. This dangerously liberal live-and-let-live approach seems to be equally inflammatory. “You don’t agree with me about [insert facet of restaurant life], then? You are not only wrong but you are an utter BASTARD”, go the usually anonymous commenters. Really? The fact that something doesn’t appeal to you doesn’t mean it’s bad, or a positive opinion of it is wrong. Literally all it means is, well, it doesn’t appeal to you.
This often overlooked truism jumped to mind when I scornfully posted on Twitter an extract from a Vogue magazine restaurant piece on what my Guardian BTL chums call a “Mayfair wankpit”. The writer was enraptured by the decor, the wallpaper, the greeters' designer outfits, gushing that “when the staff is wearing ruffled jumpsuits and off-the-shoulder dresses by Johanna Ortiz, you know the rest is going to be good.” In my long experience of restaurants, an immensely beautiful staff tricked out in designer duds does not necessarily make for a delicious gastronomic adventure. It was also unclear as to whether any, you know, actual food had been ingested. Ho ho, I snarked scornfully. And then I stopped and checked my bloody loftiness. This review was, in fact, absolutely bang on. It was designed to the letter for its Vogue target audience. Very thin fashion people don’t eat, but they do like to be seen. It’s clothes horses for courses.
Then there’s critically panned “high octane restaurant” StreetXO. No, I’ve never been, because people whose judgements and palates I trust have steered me away. And I’m reluctant to drop serious moola on either: a) a meal I’ll possibly dislike; or b) adding to the clamour of criticism in a screechy me-too-me-too way. Why sign up to shoot robata carabineros in barrels? But a Mayfair local tells me the place is permanently rammed. Clearly there are many people whose curiosity about dishes such as “Josper Vine smoked Ribeye of Wagyu Beef with Canary Island & Nikkei dressing served alongside tempura of Spanish potato omelette with egg yolk sabayon (£75)” [sic], and chefs dressed in straitjacket chic, wins out over any silly nonsense from us critics. I’m perfectly happy, in this instance, to remain in ignorance of StreetXO maestro Dabiz Muñoz and his oeuvre, but does it enrage me that others are tripping over their Charlotte Olympia heels to get in there? It does not.
Unless part of a homogenous chain, restaurants have as many personalities as people. Restaurants act as their own kind of filtering mechanism: you might recoil in appalled shock at the idea of having to queue for your dinner. Or find the idea of soft furnishings and sommeliers and linen tablecloths too stuffy and bourgeois to bear. It’s pleasingly self-determining. This seems to have escaped many people — those who become outraged at restaurant opinion because they don’t like too much spice in food. Or the seating makes them furious. The seating! The answer is simple: rather than mooing online like wounded old manatees, just don’t go. I recently tweeted a pic of the normcore (and hugely popular) restaurant offerings at Westfield with the world-weary caption “when you seriously question the point of it all.” Which immediately led to Twitter’s ever-ready brigade of thought police hitting me with self-satisfied squeals of “snob!” Ya don’t say. Of course I’m a restaurant snob: it goes with the territory. As my colleague Jay Rayner replied at the time, “Snobbery is good. Snobbery is the last defence against the mediocre and the bland and the corporate.” But if you, my friends, want to pile into Cabana or Caffè Nero, please don’t let me stop you.
Despite the proliferation of lists, awards, guides, there is no universal standard for restaurants. My views on the likes of TripAdvisor are on record. (Hint: ShitAdvisor.) But we tiny band of restaurant critics are, or at least aim to be, trusted voices. By and large, we do know what we’re talking about, even when we have our predilections and prejudices writ large. You know what: we can always agree to disagree. You might love Sexy Fish or Cutie Pies Unicorn Bagelry or curry night at bloody ‘Spoons, “washed down” (it’s always “washed down”) with a nice foaming pint. Not for me, folks. But I’d defend to the death your entitlement to your own opinion. As with everything else in life, each very much to their own.
For the record, after my post A. Wong rant, we ended up having flawless martinis in the rarefied, air-conditioned confines of Dukes Hotel, Mayfair. Win, win, win. And, also for the record, when I wrote about my 50 favourite restaurants, the place I put in top position was The Sportsman in Seasalter. And, well, it’s a pub.