OPINION: Back to the Future – Reviewing in 2020

Restaurants have certainly had a tough time over the past six months. The hospitality sector has been decimated by COVID-19. Most restaurants and cafés are struggling. Many will not survive … and those that do will be very different.

It’s been just over six months since the first lockdowns and the closure of many restaurants. Six months of change. Six months of little or no income. Six months of stress and uncertainty. Six months of closures, openings and re-closures. Six months of takeout. Six months of innovation. Six months to reflect and re-think.

The hospitality industry was always tough. Costs are high and profit margins very slim. Pre-COVID, the average life of a restaurant was just 18 months and 50 per cent of venues failed to see their third birthday. Two years ago, a thousand venues were reviewed for the 2018 G&M Restaurant Guide. Within 12 months, 32 per cent of those restaurants either closed, re-named or underwent a major transformation in branding.

No doubt, that figure will be higher today.

Another consequence of the restaurant shutdown is that restaurant reviewers have also had to find other things to do. Without restaurants, there can be no restaurant reviews. And even when some of the restrictions were relaxed and we could venture out, albeit with new rules, most of the review organisations took the decision to pause formal reviews to support the struggling industry. The Good Food Guide states that “the practice of scoring reviews has been paused”, whilst Gault&Millau, The World’s 50 Best Restaurants and other food awards have all been postponed until at least 2021.

However, in true Gallic defiance, Michelin have ignored the pandemic (which is particularly bad in France) maintaining that forging ahead with its dining guides will help support cities’ restaurants during this difficult time. Undeterred by the fact that most restaurants are locked down and it’s hard for their inspectors to get out and about, and that their printed guides have been delayed, their “digital first” inspectors are simply “reviewing on-line”.

Obviously, one cannot judge restaurants that are closed.

So, restaurant reviewers have had to find other things to do to amuse themselves! Some have focused on recipes and books. Others have taken to social media to talk about gardening, sourdough, home food production and their mother’s recipes. A few have chosen to do informal reviews – looking at cafés, bakeries and novel start-ups, and even reviewing home delivery. Others have gone back to their real jobs. And the bloggers are going hungry with a scarcity of invites in the current environment.

So, with hospitality irretrievably changed by COVID-19, what does the future hold for restaurant reviews??

Well, people will still want to go out to eat. And chefs will still want hats, stars and toques. So there is still a place for the review.

But the hospitality stage has changed. Apart from the obvious changes due to social distancing and sanitisation – which I have been harping on about for the past few months – there are still limitations on travel. International travel and high-end “destination dining” is likely to take a long while to recover. Many believe that the celebrity chef restaurant business model is dead, as diners ditch overpriced fancy meals. Jamie Oliver has closed his restaurants and is working from home. René Redzepi is making burgers. Gordon Ramsay is teaching online and serving fish & chips. Dinner by Heston Blumenthal has closed and Heston is making podcasts.

Many chefs have had time to pause and re-evaluate their lives, moving to quieter locations, scaling down, opening up pop-ups, concentrating on catering and take out, and so on. They have had time to discover what a normal life can look like – relaxing, exercising, spending time with family, eating well. Many have left the service industry, focusing instead on producing quality products like sourdough, pasta, vegan dishes, wines and others.

The hospitality industry has always been dynamic and innovative, changing rapidly with trends and tastes. This has only accelerated in recent months with COVID-scarred chefs trying different things and moving around. But this means that many reviews would be out of date almost as soon as they are published!

I think the traditional food guides and reviews are likely to struggle post-COVID. There will be less fine diners to review. Most city centres will remain quiet for some time to come. And many of those top eateries that do exist will be short-term pop-ups like Alanna Sapwell’s Esmay – making it hard to visit and then rate, score and publish a premium guide with any longevity.

Destination dining will be about the regions – about small creative venues, connected with food artisans and specialist producers within the local community. The dining consumer, stressed by the lockdowns and their own changed situations, is seeking quality comfort food. Many consumers have had time to reacquaint themselves with wholesome family meals and are seeking creative but sustaining food that makes them feel good. Good presentation, friendly convivial service in pleasant safe surroundings. And no surprises – except perhaps good ones! It’s all about the experience and the community.

To contain costs, which will inevitably rise, chefs will seek to minimise the range of expensive ingredients – so no doubt, we will see smaller but higher quality menus and a return of the fixed price “table d’hôte”. A return to high-quality traditional cuisines, as well as new, innovative comfort foods.

There will, of course, always be top-end fine diners. But the economic model for these will necessitate them to operate from subsidised destination locations, like hotels. And, especially in Australia, the limited number of international visitors and diners prepared to travel will restrict patronage. With this in mind, many top chefs are opening less expensive casual places, often in suburban or rural locations and even in pubs and clubs. The celebrity chef is not dead, but is now very different. A quiet achiever. And quality takeout, together with travelling pop-ups, are here to stay.

These short life cycles will make it difficult to rate and score restaurants in a traditional printed formal guide. Tim Hayward, food critic at the London business newspaper the Financial Times, said: “We can’t go back to what we had, whether we want to or not”. So, restaurant reviewers, and the guides themselves, will need to evolve. They will be online. More nimble. More concise. More experiential.

In many respects, the guides will go back to the future! Henri Gault and Christian Millau started out with a simple newsletter to tell their friends and readers the places they liked. Michelin was encouraging people to go on local drives and explore places worth a detour (and wear out their tyres in the process).

So, watch this space. Like the restaurants we review, we are re-evaluating, re-modelling, re-grouping and looking at new, simpler ways of promoting this wonderful, creative, dynamic and vital industry of ours.

To quote Anton Ego, the restaurant critic from the movie Ratatouille (Walt Disney Pictures, 2007) …

In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face is that, in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defence of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations. The new needs friends. (emphasis added)

By Jeremy Ryland
13 October 2020

Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash

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