This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES France.
In last Sunday's edition of the Observer, British restaurant critic Jay Rayner reviewed Le Cinq, a three Michelin-starred restaurant in Paris, considered by many as the epitome of classic French dining. In Rayner's words, the review was meant to be "an observational piece, full of moments of joy and bliss, of the sort only stupid amounts of cash can buy. We'd all have a good laugh at rich people and then return to business as usual, a little wiser." What could possibly go wrong?
What he ended up writing was probably one of the meanest restaurant reviews in history.
From the moment Rayner stepped through the doors of this "classic Parisian gastro-palace," things seemed to go wrong. Le Cinq's dining room, he wrote, was decorated in "various shades of taupe, biscuit, and fuck you." His female dining companion was given a menu without prices. When a confused waiter replaced it with one that included costs, they found out that a single plate of food was between 70 and 140 Euros. That works out to as much as £120 for a single plate of food.
It gets worse. The canape was "like eating a condom that's been left lying about in a dusty greengrocer's." The gratinated onions were "mostly black, like nightmares, and sticky, like the floor at a teenager's party" and the scallops tasted like iodine. The whole thing really is worth a read, in a craning-your-neck-to-look-at-a-very-expensive-car-crash kind of way.
Overall, Rayner branded his 600 Euro meal at Le Cinq as the "worst restaurant experience I have endured in my 18 years in this job." Unsurprisingly, given Britain's love of bashing fancy French shit, the review soon went viral, receiving numerous retweets and nearly 3,000 responses in the Observer comments section.
But what do French restaurant critics make of a British writer hopping across the Channel to deliver a savage review of one of their country's most esteemed restaurants? MUNCHIES decided to find out.
Sébastien Demorand is a former contributor to renowned French restaurant guide Gault Millau and now owns Le Bel Ordinaire bar in Paris. He tells us that you wouldn't find this level of "brutal honesty" in the the French press anymore. The kind of acerbic putdowns Rayner deploys haven't been seen since the 70s, when people like François Simon (the acid-tongued critic said to have inspired the Anton Ego character in Ratatouille) were still reviewing restaurants.
"Jay Rayner is far more direct than anyone else," Demorand says. "But what do you expect from a journalist who lives on the other side of the Channel? English journalists tend to be more straightforward when expressing their opinions because it's considered something they owe to their readers—like an act of independence."
We also spoke to François-Régis Gaudry, food critic at L'Express and host of French food show Très Très Bon!. He was less forgiving of Rayner's review.
"Eighteen years in the job and he never ate anything worse. Really? His bitterness is kind of pathetic."
"Food critics are always up for a fight, but this one is too brutal to be true—it was a complete lynching from start to finish," he says. "It's also not the first time that the British press has gone after a French institution, they can't seem to resist."
For Gaurdry, Rayner's experience at Le Cinq was hard to believe.
"I don't like reviews that sound like they were written with a flamethrower," he says. "To me, this just sounds like someone who was in a bad mood. It's suspicious that not a single positive thing came out of his visit to Le Cinq. Eighteen years in the job and he never ate anything worse. Really? His bitterness is kind of pathetic."
Pathetic or not, Rayner's review has been read by thousands of people, both in France and Britain. Will Le Cinq suffer from a dip in custom after such a public takedown? We tried to get in touch with the restaurant, which usually answers every negative TripAdvisor review personally, but a spokesperson said that they would prefer not to comment. Off the record, a staff member told us that Le Cinq reads all reviews, good and bad, but that there is no official protocol in place for dealing with those such as Rayner's. They added that they thought Le Cinq's Michelin-starred reputation would withstand the media frenzy surrounding the review.
And Rayner himself? We contacted the critic but were informed that he would not be giving follow-up comments as he was taking time off for a family holiday.
Let's hope it's not in France.