Retirement: A permanent fork in the road as star’s food critic for 26 years hangs up his napkin
That’s it, no second helpings please. I’m putting down my knife and fork after 26 years and more than 1,400 reviews.
They have mostly been dinners or lunches but I managed to scoff some afternoon teas, cream teas, the odd takeaway, breakfasts, barbies and even review a fundraising dinner party along the way.
On the plus side the experience has honed my tastebuds, saved me wondering what to cook that night and taken me to places and eaten things I might not have experienced – although I can still feel the crunch from eating deep-fried chicken’s feet, claws and all, in a Chinese restaurant
On the minus side I have had indigestion a few times but my cast-iron stomach has saved me from serious collywobbles. I have, however, put on a stone or two.
I have tried to be firm and fair but my reviews have got me into a few scrapes.
I was taken to the Press Council by one restaurant angry over my review after the editor refused their request to ‘invite Mr Dawes to come again, announced, and see what good food really is. Then we will take great pleasure in throwing him out!’.
There was the restaurant, bruised over my report, which claimed I had threatened a waiter with a bad review if I didn’t get the meal free (but I already do, bills are settled by The Star at the end of the month).
And there was that difficult moment in a Tesco car park when I ran into an Italian restaurateur to whom I had been less than kind.
Italians can be tricky people. Describing one in print, I thought affectionately, as ‘pizza plump’, he told me angrily: “You can criticise my food but not me.”
So can the French. One monsieur cried racism when I used the word Froggy in a less than sympathetic review, so imagine my surprise when he later revamped his bistro with a different name – part of which was Froggy.
My brief has been to give readers the feel of a restaurant, the food, service and whether I think it is value for money - your hard-earned cash.
It is purely my opinion, of course, and some readers take up my tips while others make a point of going to places I don’t like. I know. They’ve told me.
I don’t mind. If you follow a critic in any subject you soon get to know your preferences against his or hers and that’s useful in itself.
But if I could have had a tenner each time people have asked me for my favourite place I’d have enough loot to pay for dinners the rest of my life. I don’t. It’s horses for courses for me, depending on my mood and the occasion.
I have had some golden moments. They include a stuffed pig’s trotter at Michelin-starred Fischers of Baslow Hall, the sheer fun of Neil Allen’s cooking at Greenhead House, or, further afield in France, the frogs’ legs, garlic and parsley signature dish of Bernard Loiseau, who shot himself when he thought wrongly he was losing a Michelin star (his widow kept the restaurant on).
But good food doesn’t have to be grand. I still lick my lips recalling the cowheel gravy served at the little café, long gone, on Devonshire Green, personally recommended by David Blunkett MP.
Or the braised leeks in a very short-lived bistro in Firth Park of all places.
And there have been any number of glorious pies.
I love restaurants. For a journalist the story in a restaurant is not just the food but the people making and serving it.
So there was the chef I found on Abbeydale Road who did not have a single customer all week, the couple who bought a restaurant to give their son a job and the railway-mad bloke who built a replica of an Orient Express carriage and turned it into a restaurant.
Now I shall look forward to having meals out like a normal person, for there have always been three of us at the dinner table these last 26 years - me, the missus and my notebook.
Normal diners eat and chat, reviewers chew their pens as well as the food and wonder what they can say that’s interesting. It has been a privilege chronicling the story.