View from the top: Fay Maschler, restaurant critic, Evening Standard

Scourge of sub-standard eateries and incompetent PROs alike, Evening Standard restaurant critic Fay Maschler is still going strong after 36 years. She talks to Hannah Marriott about her new venture and her fearsome reputation.

Fay Maschler
Fay Maschler

One name strikes more fear into the hearts of restaurant PR people than any other. That name is Fay Maschler.

During her 36-year tenure at the Evening Standard, the food critic's articles have shown the power to make or break new venues. While Maschler insists she would always rather dine at a good restaurant, she is more famous for her scathing reviews.

PRWeek meets Maschler at her sumptuous pad in London's swanky Fitzroy Square. The house she shares with her writer and artist husband Reg Gadney is crammed full of paintings, photographs, movie posters, sculptures, books, battered sofas and faded rugs.

In person, Maschler is pleasant and polite, although clearly not one to suffer fools. She is matter of fact about her own influence, which she attributes modestly to longevity. She is well aware that neither chefs nor PROs are likely to object to poor write-ups because, 'conscious of the next visit, they don't want to annoy you by ringing up and complaining'.

Fay MaschlerThis year, Maschler is writing fewer Standard reviews and working part-time at Private View, the hospitality consultancy she opened last month with Simon Davis, a former Standard features editor. Clients include catering firm Searcy's, which runs the champagne bar at St Pancras International Train Station.

Maschler is typically candid about her reasons for getting involved. 'I wanted to make more money,' she says. 'And anyway, the consultancy is more proactive and creative than going round criticising people.'

Maschler is keen to point out that PR is off the menu for her personally - she believes she would make a pretty poor PRO.

'I'm not very good at being nice,' she muses. 'I couldn't be as amenable as some of them are. But I could write a good press release.'

Indeed, the last thing Maschler wants is to be too cosy with the PR industry. As she says: 'I try to stay at arm's length - they probably think I am not very friendly.' That said, after 36 years, some 'have become ... sort of friends'.

She speaks highly of Network London owner Maureen Mills, Roche Communications managing director Rochelle Cohen and Sauce Communications co-founder Jo Barnes, among others.

As Barnes points out: 'Critics are different from journalists. You can't try to sell things in; all you can really do is supply them with accurate information. Attempts at coercion will just annoy them.

'Any PRO who says he or she has influence over Fay Maschler is being disingenuous,' she adds.

Maschler is irritated by people in PR who 'don't really understand their clients' - particularly food PROs who 'don't have the knowledge and don't have the interest.

'They'll order a glass of water and eat a salad without dressing. And you think, why don't you do PR for a cosmetics company?'

Like many journalists, Maschler is equally annoyed by misspellings of her name, which have included the fabulous 'Kay Mascara'.

'It's not hard to check, is it? These people are being paid for this. They could at least get the names right,' she adds.

Poorly written press releases can be dangerous too, often finding their way into Maschler's columns.

'I get really, really terrible press releases,' she groans. 'So terrible they're quite fun to quote from; written in breathless prose, assuming no-one's ever been to a restaurant before.'

Maschler's bete noir is the phrase 'mouth-watering' - not only is it cliched, she says, but also 'a horrid idea - it conjures up a vision of people drooling'. Her advice is to write 'informatively, rather than lyrically'.

'I only want to know about the company and the chef - that's all. I don't need to be told the food is mouth-watering and the wine comes from all around the world,' she sighs.

It is understandable, then, that most agencies do not encourage their junior staff to contact Maschler. As Barnes says: 'You vet all emails that are sent to her and only a few of us here would actually call her.'

Cohen insisits that Maschler is 'very nice and approachable' but adds: 'Most PROs are scared to death of her - an image she has probably, and very sensibly, cultivated.'

Maschler thinks PROs would describe her as 'difficult'. She says: 'I really don't appreciate it if lots ring up, especially as I work from home.'

Gifts can also be a bad idea. 'The other day,' she says, 'a PR company sent this completely pathetic carrier bag with a few really horrid things in it: an emery board; a Dr Scholl gel thing. This was to publicise a new shopping centre in Shepherd's Bush. If I was going to publicise a smart set of new shops, I'd think up something a little more chic.

'Then they rang up to say had I got it, what was I going to do and, you know, I probably wasn't very friendly. But if you're going to try to bribe somebody, as it were, then you should do better than that.'

Although there is little they can do to influence Maschler, PROs prize their relationships with her. And she occasionally collaborates with PR agencies on projects. For example, Maschler has a house in Greece, and at the moment is working with Sauce Communications on a project to promote Greek food.

As far as restaurant PROs are concerned, Maschler remains the country's most important reviewer. Mills points out that even other critics admire her longevity and knowledge of food (she is, Mills says, an excellent cook), often paying homage to the grand damme by name-checking her in their copy.

But there is no escaping the fact that the media landscape has changed greatly, particularly in recent years.

The paid-for circulation of the Evening Standard has shrunk, in part due to the success of sister title London Lite and thelondonpaper. And these days anyone can post their reviews of restaurants on websites such as Toptable.co.uk.

Maschler seems a little put out when asked if these developments have had an effect on her own writing: 'No, why would they? It's not hard to differentiate yourself from something written for the web.'

She also points out that the Standard's readers tend to be influential ABC1s. Maschler has heard that even the Queen reads her column. Once, when she panned a restaurant that was set up by a royal, the Queen reportedly sympathised with her relative, saying: 'I heard that woman in the Standard said something nasty about you.'

Nowadays, faced with the ubiquitous amateur online critic, does Maschler still believe she can fill a restaurant with a single glowing review?

'Yes - especially if it's not a very expensive restaurant,' she says.

And you would not want to argue with her.

ABOUT FAY MASCHLER

2008: Still at the Evening Standard, Maschler and former Standard features editor Simon Davis launch a hospitality industry consultancy, A Private View

1998: A six-times winner of Glenfiddich Food & Drink Awards' Restaurant Writer of the Year, Maschler scoops the coveted Glenfiddich Trophy

1996: Falls out with Gordon Ramsay after likening one of his creations to 'toxic scum on a stagnant pond'. They have patched things up since

1975: Publishes 'Cooking is a Game you can Eat', a recipe book for children, one of many books she has written

1972: Big break comes when she enters a competition to write the Evening Standard's restaurant column for three months

1969: Stints as a copywriter at advertising agency J.Walter Thompson and assistant features editor at the Radio Times.

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