Jay Rayner: My Dining Hell

Jay Rayner is a real presence, a big guy with a big voice who is very comfortable with addressing an audience. During a very interesting hour we learn a lot about what motivates his writing, why we love coruscating reviews, and the different types of ‘bad’ restaurant. If you’re a fan of Rayner’s writing, and restaurant reviews in general, the rewards are bountiful.

The wit in his writing is just as evident in his public speaking.

Rayner begins with a discussion of why we love to read bad reviews. He suggests that it’s to do with ‘social comparison theory’; after a long and stressful week filled with life’s little miseries, it feels good to sit down with the Sunday papers and witness someone being laid into. For the time it takes to read eleven hundred words, someone is having a much worse time than you are. This analysis is pretty much on the money and it’s also why, as Rayner admits, bad reviews are easier and so much more fun, to write. ‘It’s all about the story’ as he points out, and stories with happy endings are not always the most satisfying.

Then there are his pet peeves, the things that immediately undermine his dining experience and attract the sharpest edge of his pen. There is the dreaded ‘would you like me to explain the concept behind our menu?’ and the enthusiastic waiter refilling your glass (which has its perils if your dining partner drinks slower than you do), whilst interrupting your dazzling conversation with a repeated ‘how is everything guys?!’ These examples are illustrated with brief videos starring Rayner himself, acted out with an exaggerated earnestness that captures the kind of pretentiousness that Rayner loves to undermine.

A segment dealing with the language used on menus reveals some real gems: ‘Basil enthused pasta’ is just one. Rayner’s interaction with the audience is also impressive. A mispronounced ‘dreich’ earns a reproach from the Scottish contingent; he pauses just for a moment and replies ‘you have a vote on it in September!’ The wit in his writing is just as evident in his public speaking.

The closing section, detailing his top five worst dining experiences, is similarly deft. For anyone with an appetite for eating out, or for insights into the reviewing profession, My Dining Hell is fine fodder indeed.

Reviews by James Macnamara


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Cabaret Nova

The Edinburgh Academy

West Side Story




The Blurb

Observer restaurant critic and chair of BBC Radio 4’s Kitchen Cabinet, Jay Rayner examines our fascination with lousy reviews, recalls some of his worst nights out and shares the most damning reviews his own work has received.