For my birthday, my parents offered to take me out to dinner. I was given the task of finding a restaurant. I considered the matter. Naturally, it had to be a place that served good food, but a gastronomic temple would, I felt, be inappropriate. It should have a relaxed atmosphere, not be excessively expensive (this was, after all, only my 29th birthday: I'm saving the three Michelin stars for next year) and have outside tables (this was the height of summer). Oh, and it should be within easy reach of Victoria Station in London (my parents were coming from Sussex).
I consulted a friend who lives in the area. He suggested La Poule au Pot. I punched the name into Google. The first website to appear was called www.london-eating.co.uk. Clicking through, I discovered that it is dedicated to reviews by ordinary diners. The first two comments were glowing: "extremely friendly" staff; "excellent" food; "exceptionally good value for money". Ditto the third: ". . . very romantic . . . The service is . . . ideal." But the fourth reviewer painted a different picture: "Rarely have I been more embarrassed or dissatisfied by a restaurant choice . . . extraordinarily rude maItre d' . . . the tuna was nearly inedible."
I scrolled through the rest and found that the pattern repeated itself. Most reviews were positive but every so often came a stinker, complaining of overpriced food, offensive staff and vegetables that were "clearly recycled leftovers". I was confused. Was La Poule au Pot any good? Matters weren't helped when the restaurant's manager pitched in, criticising the criticisms and stressing that "our vegetables . . . are never recycled".
Depending on your point of view, a site such as london-eating.co.uk is either a glorious illustration of people power or the end of all critical discernment. Nowadays almost all of us are critics in some capacity. Businesses obsessively solicit "customer feedback"; television presenters invite viewers to text or e-mail comments; we sit in judgement on reality TV contestants and we decide which bestselling novels will become "classics".
But the biggest growth area for amateur criticism is, inevitably, the internet. Anyone can set up as a commentator in cyberspace: all you need to do is start a blog or tap into sites such as london-eating.co.uk, which act as forums for popular feedback. The net, as everyone knows, is relentlessly egalitarian. In cyberspace, there is no Times restaurant critic (or if his views are available there, they won't necessarily take precedence over those of Mr Jones of Basingstoke). For the Fay Maschlers of this world, accustomed to dispensing judgement from on high to a grateful public, this must be an uncomfortable development.
There is a certain inevitability about the eclipse of the old-fashioned critic. Consulting the views of a stranger online is often the most convenient course. When deciding whether to go to La Poule au Pot, I quite wanted to read a conventional review by a "proper" restaurant critic, but I couldn't find one. No doubt, this is largely what accounts for the success of london-eating.co.uk (with 650,000 users a month, the largest online restaurant guide in the UK).
But is it a good thing? I am not convinced. Consulting the opinions of ordinary people is all very well, but what you most want, I think, is one review by someone you trust, and who you know has some expertise. (But then I would say this, as I work at a magazine and have a vested interest in the status quo.) Our supper at La Poule au Pot proved the point: it turned out to be neither particularly good nor completely terrible - in other words, almost none of the london-eating.co.uk reviewers had got it right.