|Photo courtesy of Aude Baron/Resto-de-Paris.com|
Restaurant reviewers are like politicians in a way. We all 'know' that some of them are dishonest but it's not very often that we actually see proof of it. And that is why I was most pleased to come across this very revealing article in the Le Plus section of the Nouvel Observateur a few days ago. Written by Aude Baron, the section's Editor-in-Chief, it offers a few insider insights into how some French restaurant reviewers, including those from the well-known French women's monthly magazine Marie Claire, consider that blackmail and punishment are acceptable tools when it comes to getting a free meal in return for a good review.
But Marie Claire's strong-arm tactics were revealed for all to see when details of an email exchange earlier this month between Jean-Paul Lubot, the delegate general director of the Marie Claire press group, and Parisian restaurant owner Pierre Jancou found their way onto the 'Food Intelligence' blog.
Lubot loftily announced via his staff in his initial contact email that Jancou's restaurant, 'Vivant', had been "selected" to be featured in Marie Claire's 'Le Paris de Jean-Paul Lubot' column, and he asked if Jancou would "invite him to dinner", adding that he would be "accompanied."
He soon learned that he had bitten off more than he could chew. Jancou was having none of it and he replied in bitingly terse terms to say that never in his 24-year career in the restaurant business had he ever invited a journalist to one of his restaurants, and that he considered Lubot's way of going about his business to be "shady and fraudulent."
Lobot refused to take no for an answer however, and declared in his next email that for a restaurant reviewer to get invited by the patron to a restaurant he was reviewing was "extremely common practice."
Not chez Jancou it isn't. He refused again. Lubot's reaction?
He quite simply made sure that 'Vivant' was taken off Marie Claire's recommended restaurant list and he sent a petulantly temper tantrum email in which he asserted that "you've got no idea have you, and all you have done is to confirm the stinginess for which you are well known in the business." Charming n'est-ce pas?
Baron also writes that some reviewers openly identify themselves as such when they get to a restaurant, which of course often earns them special attention and, who knows, maybe a free meal too. She has even seen amply wined-and-dined reviewers strike a deal with restaurant owners after their meal by using the arm-twisting "if you don't make me pay I'll write about you, and if you do make me pay I'll forget you forever" tactic.
Yet another scam is that of reviewers making restaurants pay for the privilege of placing the much-sought-after (by some less scrupulous restaurant owners) 'Recommended by such-and-such a magazine/restaurant guide" stickers in their front windows, next to those of the 'we accept American Express cards' ilk.
All of these 'reviewing' methods are, of course, scandalous, and I know that a well-known review booklet here in Lyon also uses dubious methods in its restaurant ratings.
This kind of news casts a shadow over the whole of the restaurant review business in Paris and elsewhere (and yes, it is a business.) After all, who, in the light of all this, can be sure, if ever they were before, that they are reading an honest review which will help them choose where to eat? Who are the honest reviewers and who are the bad guys? And who are those restaurant owners who pay the meals of their reviewers? We won't know of course, unless their dealings become public knowledge.
While we're waiting for a more reliable system to be devised and adhered to (and that's going to be difficult) we at least know that Aude Baron has had the honest courage to denounce Marie Claire's dubious practices, and she kindly sent me some recommendations of her own of restaurant reviewers, journalists, blogs and other sources she trusts. She also runs a well-read blog on restaurants in Paris herself, Resto-de-Paris.com.
Here's her selection.
Coup de Fourchette
Chroniques du Plaisir
She also recommends Figaro's 'Sortir à Paris' section and their journalists Emmanuel Rubin and François Simon as well as l'Express' 'Et Toque' and 'La Soif du Miam' with their articles by Anne-Laure Pham and François Regis Gaudry.
And I have a recommendation of my own too. I haven't ever eaten there but I'll gladly visit Pierre Jancou's 'Vivant' the next time I'm up in Paris, because any owner who has the guts to resist press behemoths like Marie Claire and their 'free meal ticket' approach to reviewing deserves support and a healthy clientèle. 'Vivant', 43, rue des Petites-Écuries, Paris 10th. 0142464355.
Bon appetit !