WHO IS MRS DINER?
RICHARD KIRKMAN, Print Publishing Editor of The Journal, on his afternoon as Mrs Diner.
For a few hours I was Mrs Secret Diner.
Wined and dined me, he did. And he was totally charming, even though I knew he’d got another Mrs Diner at home as well as lots more around the country.
I hadn’t realised that the Mrs Diner who has played a prominent supporting role in The Journal’s food reviews over the last five years was, in fact, shorthand for whoever he happened to be dining with that week.
But that was not the only thing I was naïve about. I now know for sure what I have always suspected – that I’m rubbish at reviewing restaurants.
Which is a shame because I have in the past reviewed restaurants. Most journalists have. It’s a bit of a lark, really. You toddle along with your partner, have an enjoyable night out (at the restaurant's cost), write a review and claim your expenses. Easy.
But what are my qualifications for this role? Well, I eat dinner every day. I can cook (“sausage, chips and beans, kids?”) and I can take my time over choosing wine in the supermarket before settling on the one with the prettiest label. And that’s it.
Also, I’m too nice. On the rare occasions that I take my wife (Mrs Diner’s Mrs?) out for dinner I’ll not complain about poor food or slow service because complaining would make me tense. I even try to stop my wife from complaining. The Secret Diner’s attitude is that if you are paying a lot of money for a meal you have a right to expect decent food and service. His complaints and questions are not unpleasant, but he won’t be fobbed off.
Take our wobble. As soon as we sat down to our meal it was clear that our table had a major wobble. Secret Diner (can I call him Him Indoors?) pointed this out to the waitress, who brought over a leaflet or a menu to jam under it. But a wobble like ours required far more than a folded-up menu. A small novel, maybe. Sure enough, when she had gone, the wobble remained.
Had it been me I would probably have settled for the table rocking like the deck of a galleon for the duration of our meal, but SD was determined that it would be fixed, however many times they had to have a go at it. He was right. And they did fix it.
The meal we ate produced one of Secret Diner’s one-star reviews. Would I have said so, had it been me? Probably not. As he wanted to try several dishes, in order to add depth to his review, we had an awful lot of food – actually a lot of awful food – on our table. While he just tasted each dish, I ate as much of it as I could because I didn’t want the staff to think we weren’t enjoying our food. Which we weren’t. Very British.
Over the last five years, Secret Diner has become required reading for anyone who likes food. His own qualifications are impeccable: an award-winning professional journalist, both his parents were in the food industry, as a teenager he helped out in his father’s restaurant in Newcastle.
All local restaurant owners and staff should definitely read his columns. For them I offer a few hints on how to get in his good books.
First, he likes good food, properly cooked. This is obvious, of course, but it still needs saying. He wants food to have been prepared with care and love. He can’t stand it when corners are cut.
Second, don’t let one course let you down. I’ve lost count of the number of really glowing reviews where one course has jarred horribly, thereby spoiling the whole review for the purposes of framing it and putting it up in the lobby. Often, it’s pudding. This is the North East, you know. Pudding matters.
Third, restaurant chains have to work harder for good reviews, but it’s not impossible. Chains put SD on high alert for things being done lazily by rote. But if the food is good, it doesn’t matter. Byron, the burger chain that opened recently in Newcastle, got a very positive review.
Fourth, having knowledgeable staff is crucial. They need to be able to talk with authority about the wine, about the food’s provenance and how it has been cooked. Just because nine out of ten diners are like me and eat what they are given without question doesn’t mean this can be neglected. And, of course, the service must be warm and friendly too. Amid the wreckage of our meal together, our game Romanian waitress stayed cool under fire. The resulting review highlighted this.
Fifth, the bar is raised if the price is high. We have a right to expect more for more. On the other hand, SD is prepared to cut a little slack to someone doing their best and charging reasonably. But not too much slack. Bad food is bad food, whether you are paying £6 or £36 for a main course.
Sixth, go local. Game when it’s in season, fish brought in off the boats at North Shields. Seventh, if it’s meant to be spicy, make it spicy. Local restaurants with generic food and Thai or Indian restaurants that aren’t bold enough with the spices are a couple of recurrent SD complaints.
Finally, the Secret Diner is on a mission. The North East is a wonderful place and its diners deserve wonderful, local food, not to be fobbed off and taken for granted as northern unsophisticates.
Since he started writing in The Journal, the standard of food in Newcastle has improved dramatically. It’s no coincidence. In five years the Secret Diner has built himself a real personality on our pages – not bad when you are just a magenta silhouette. Long may he continue.