10 Food critics you should know about

Lucy Middleton

Choosing where and what to eat is one of life’s big questions. Get it wrong and you risk disappointed taste buds, wasted money and unfulfilled cravings. Fortunately, there are people out there who have dedicated their careers to making sure our next meal won’t be a let-down

Here are ten of the most notorious food critics who have helped shape dining experiences all over the world.

*Warning: the following content might make you ever so slightly hungry or put you off your food…

 

Jay Rayner

Once branded “the world’s most feared restaurant critic”, you may recognise Jay Rayner from frequent TV appearances on MasterChef and The One Show. The Observer columnist is known for not mincing his words and prefers to serve his criticism without any decorative trimmings.

In 2017, his review of Paris restaurant Le Cinq went viral after his harsh words angered French chefs. In the article, Rayner described a canapé as a “Barbie-sized silicone breast implant”, while noting that his pigeon main was “so pink it just might fly again given a few volts”. He ended the review by saying the Michelin star restaurant had left him with “bleak and troubling” memories that he would be trying to forget. 

But despite terrifying chefs, Rayner’s honesty means a good write-up is something to be cherished. Most recently Manchester restaurant the Spärrows received a surge in bookings after being deemed a “glorious carb-fest” in one glowing review.

 

Jonathan Gold

No list of notorious restaurant reviewers is complete without Jonathan Gold, who became the first critic to win a Pulitzer in 2007. Gold passed away last year after losing a battle with pancreatic cancer, aged 57. His death devastated the US food community.

Gold was often credited for the way he would tie “food and feeling” together, writing passionate reviews that extended further than just the cuisine. He memorably detailed what it was like to eat a live prawn (“weird and primal and breathtakingly good”), while his description of a “waltz-time snack-sip-chat” izakaya meal earned an honourable mention from the Pulitzer committee. 

He started his career at the LA Times long before the internet and became the final say for where was “good-to-go”, sampling a huge variety of eateries and never indulging in snobbery. As fellow critic Ruth Reichl put it: “He was a trailblazer who really did change the way that we all write about food.”

 

Tom Parker-Bowles

You might just recognise his surname, but the Duchess of Cornwall’s son is well-known for his writing on food, having penned seven cookbooks. Tom Parker-Bowles says “eating well” is the key to happiness and has praised his mother for sparking his interest in food.

With food columns in Tatler and The Mail on Sunday, some of Parker-Bowles’ most notorious reviews include sampling the best British pubs across the UK. He has signposted readers to find fish wrapped in “crisp, golden and brittle batter” or eel smoked in the “most gentle of smokes”. In December, he compiled a list of 100 of the cosiest pubs in Britain, critiquing ambience and furnishings along with taste and texture. 

Parker-Bowles tends to favour a softer review than most—which could also be due to his mother’s influence. Last year he admitted Camilla was a tough critic to please, to the point that he refuses to cook for her. 

 

Marina O'Loughlin

Some critics believe it’s impossible to have an authentic dining experience if staff know who she or he is. Marina O’Loughlin is one of the last British food writers to remain committed to working in absolute anonymity.

With columns in the Metro, The Guardian and The Sunday Times, O’Loughlin has built a reputation on her no nonsense writing style and “utter obsession” with restaurants. In one biting article she described food at Glasgow’s Bilson Eleven as having the “charm of a Theresa May interview”, while she declared she would have to be “pitchforked” to go near London’s Stoke House ever again. There, she recalled the ribs tasted of “yesterday’s roast dinner”, while the salmon was “pallid, morose and wanly pink as an unwilling bridesmaid”.

O’Loughlin’s anonymity rewards readers with a true depiction of restaurant service, with even Jay Rayner expressing his jealousy that she can “get the skinny on crappy service” in a way he cannot.

 

Grace Dent

Grace Dent attained notoriety for her restaurant column at The Evening Standard, entitled “Grace and Flavour”. Perhaps best enjoyed for her cutting sarcasm and dry wit, she has since joined The Guardian, winning “Reviewer of the Year” at the London Restaurant Festival in 2017. 

Dent’s most memorable descriptions include eating “thoroughly cheerless churros” at Mexican restaurant Peyotito, describing them as “four tiny, little finger-sized farts of dough on a MasterChef brown smear”. Another column joked that a £34 pie would have to contain “ethically-reared unicorn”—until she tasted its “rich, buttery puff-pastry lid and tarragon-flecked aromatic innards” and decided to “shut up”. Interestingly, Dent herself is a vegan, but doesn’t let it stop her from reviewing all kinds of meat-mad eateries. 

Dent is also a prolific author and has published 11 novels to date. Her three series, LBD, Diary of a Chav and Diary of a Snob are all aimed at teenage readers.  

 

Andy Hayler

If you want luxurious dining, Andy Hayler is your man. Famous for having eaten at every three Michelin star restaurant in the world, he also runs his own reviews website, which claims to be the oldest of its kind in existence. 

Hayler’s work for the Elite Traveller Magazine groups restaurants by location, creating the perfect guide to eating out overseas. From Sunday roasts in London to hidden gems in Tokyo, Barcelona and Sydney—he specialises in top-end tasting, with standout meals including “tender octopus coated with panko breadcrumbs” and “meltingly tender pork ‘paper’ with pork liver and roasted onion”.

Hayler has written and contributed to three books about food, including 1001 Restaurants to Experience Before You Die. But keeping up with the critic’s pricey tastes could prove difficult. He describes his passion for fine dining as like following a football team and has admitted to spending hundreds on some of his favourite meals. 

 

Ruth Reichl

Once a New York Times favourite, Ruth Reichl left the publication to become editor of Gourmet in 1999. The magazine ceased publication in 2009, and since then the critic has written a food memoir, Save Me The Plums, which was released earlier this year. 

Reichl’s reputation for “making or breaking” a restaurant is second to none, famously scrutinising every aspect of a meal and leaving no sautéed potato uncovered. Her writing became so powerful at the height of her career, she was forced to wear disguises to dinner, creating characters such as “mousy” Molly, “brazen” Chloe, “frumpy old Brenda” and “nasty” Emily. One restaurant even kept photographs of her in the kitchen in hopes that they would recognise her.

She retired from critiquing as eating out made her miss dinner times at home with her family. But Reichl won’t be putting down the pen just yet and is already working on her next book. 

 

Fay Maschler

Another critic known for her cut-throat reviews, Fay Maschler manned the Evening Standard’s restaurants column for over 40 years, having first won the post in a contest. She has since written a number of books about food and has appeared as a guest judge on MasterChef

Dishing out plenty of one or two star write-ups, Maschler is not a fan of places that cater to “Instagram, not the mouth”. Unafraid to get personal, she once likened Gordon Ramsay’s creations to “toxic scum on a stagnant pond”, while a meal made by Jamie Oliver was called “gauche” and “joyless”. In her defence, she joked that she is just not “very good at being nice”.

But Maschler is certainly not incapable of making readers’ mouths water when she finds food to her liking. Given the right restaurant, vegetables can “gleam under the skin of vegetarian ruyi”, while roast pheasant can be cut into “gratifyingly juicy pieces”. Delicious. 

 

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall

Eating out and being environmentally-conscious don’t have to contradict each other, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall insists. The former chef and food writer is all about promoting seasonal, ethically produced food through his work. He enjoys critiquing aspects of food production, using both print and broadcast journalism to illustrate meals which can reduce harm to the planet. 

Fearnley-Whittingstall places emphasis with restaurants that use “plant-based creativity”, as well as running his own chain, the River Cottage Canteens. He previously stated he would much rather “muddle my chickpeas, kidney beans, walnuts and quinoa with fresh leaves, crunchy roots and sun-ripened fruits” than contribute to the meat industry. His viewpoint has sparked TV campaigns such as Hugh’s Fish Fight, Hugh’s War on Waste and Britain’s Fat Fight.

But his message is not without controversy, and has sparked other critics to pass judgement. Jay Rayner once slammed his “high-price” restaurant as only for those who can “afford their ethics”.

 

Pete Wells

If you’re an avid reader of the New York Times, it’s likely you’ll have stumbled across one of Pete Wells’ weekly restaurant reviews. Based in Brooklyn, he was once described as the “most powerful anonymous critic in America”, known for both informing and entertaining while also sticking the knife in wherever he sees fit.

Some of Wells’ harshest takedowns include stripping two stars from restaurant Per Se for being “grand, hermetic, self-regarding, and ungenerous” while serving a dish with as much appeal as “bong water”. In another review, wasabi at sushi chain Sugarfish was described as tasting like “watery horseradish” that looked like a “green version of the poop emoji, without the smile”.

But no restaurant has suffered under Wells’ words like Guy’s American Kitchen & Bar. Instead of a review, the article featured a list of questions aimed at owner Guy Fieri, starting with, “Have you eaten at your restaurant?”