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Tuesday, March 24, 2009

What happened to the quality of Australia's restaurants - and its restaurant reviewing?

Before we moved overseas a decade ago we thought Australian restaurants were some of the best in the world. And it wasn't that we hadn't travelled much. We had. But a meal at Testuya's, Rockpool or Aria was better than any we'd eaten at overseas - even in New York. Yet since returning to Australia last year to research a couple of books, we've been so disappointed by Australian restaurants. (Admittedly, we've not yet had the chance to return to Tetsuya's, Rockpool or Aria - we'll try those again next month). We spent over four months on the road, eating out at least once (or twice) a day, and, sadly, we can count the truly memorable meals we've had on both hands - ten great meals out of 120 (minimum) is not good at all. In Italy, where we spent three months researching books before returning here, it was the opposite. (I'll share our top Aussie restaurants with you in another post.) On Saturday night, we took my aunt and uncle out to dinner here in Bendigo to thank them for having us stay at their beautiful house for so long. We took them to what The Age's Good Food Guide considers to not only be Bendigo's best restaurant (for four years running!), but one the reviewer would travel far to eat at. We've used the book a lot this trip and have been disappointed so many times with their selections. The quality of their best choices just doesn't compare to some of the world's best restaurants. So either the quality of restaurant offerings around these days is not very high, the Good Food Guide's standards are no longer as high as they once were, they reviewers are not looking very hard, or they simply need to get out (of the country) more. It's very disappointing. Terry has one theory: read his post What is the price of an average meal?

Pictured? One of Terry's recent dishes, a Tortilla Soup, just one course in a five-course authentic Mexican menu (not Tex Mex!) we made for my aunt and uncle who recently returned from a trip to Mexico. We might not get out much while we're in write-up mode, but we certainly eat well. Better than we do when we go out in Australia it seems! So, what do you think? Has the quality of Australian restaurants declined? And the standards of reviewing too? Or are we just too critical?


Jen Laceda | Milk Guides said...

I have Neil Perry's cookbook at home and I try (try, being the operative word)to emulate his well-crafted dishes, but failing miserably (of course). I do love his pasta alla vongole recipe, which is clean and simple. Would love to try Rockpool someday!

I think because we are able to travel more and experience the different cuisines of the world, consumers now are more educated about the finer things in life. For a restaurateur or service provider, it's generally harder to keep up with customers, especially if they can make a mean Tortilla Soup at home!

Lara Dunston said...

Hi Jen - you *must* try Rockpool if you like his food. I'm no cook, but Terry replicates his dishes very well. I think he's a stickler for precise measurement of ingredients and that's why.

I agree with you that the average person is much more experienced now but don't you think that's a reason for restaurants to lift their game? They simply shouldn't be serving up average food, food worse than we can cook at home. It will be interesting to see if some of these restaurants survive, but perhaps they will because people still like the idea of going out and eating out.

Thanks for your comment!

Jen Laceda | Milk Guides said...

Oh, definitely, mediocre restaurants need to up the ante if they want to keep their customers around.

You know, here in Toronto (like in many cities I suppose), we have a food event called Winterlicious & Summerlicious, in which participating restuarants offer a prix fixe set lunch or dinner menu for a limited time. I hate this event! Sure, it gets people out and promotes local businesses, but it also encourages uninspired, assembly-line-type of cooking. On the whole, it's just a big rip-off! It actually turns me off some restaurants! But you know what? You're right, people still like the idea of eating out, and so long as there are forgiving people out there, some places would not even feel compelled to lift their game.

I don't know, is it just me?

Lara Dunston said...

No, it's not just you! That's a great point. Terry and I went to a similar event in the Adelaide Hills wine region a couple of months ago that was exactly the same. While I like the idea of those food and wine festivals, I never really enjoy them. I'd rather sit down at a restaurant and appreciate the food. But I can see why the restaurants do it. And maybe they do win over some new audiences, who knows. But that's a great point! Don't worry - you are not alone!