Barbara McMahon in Sydney
Saturday June 16, 2007
Australian food critics were left spluttering into their napkins yesterday after a court decided that an unfavourable review of a Sydney restaurant was defamatory, opening the way for the owners to claim damages.
The critics said the decision could lead to reviewers of theatre, music, literature and art fearing to speak their minds in case they are sued.
The case centres on a review of Coco Roco restaurant published in the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper in 2003. Matthew Evans, then the newspaper's chief food critic, dined at the restaurant twice and was not impressed. He said the flavour of oysters soaked in limoncello "jangled like a car crash" and that a sherry scented apricot white sauce that accompanied steak was a "wretched garnish" that he scraped off.
Awarding the restaurant nine points out of 20, he concluded that "more than half the dishes I've tried at Coco Roco are simply unpalatable", and that the food was overpriced.
Coco Roco closed three months after the review and the owners, who had spent more than A$3m (£1.3m) refitting the restaurant, blamed it on the reviewer, saying that customers had been put off by Evans' words.
The affair has been in the courts for months. In the latest ruling the high court of New South Wales found that the review was an attack on the restaurant as a business. "Business capacity and reputation are different from personal reputation," the judgment said. "Harm to the former can be, as here, inflicted more directly and narrowly than harm to a person's reputation."
The Sydney Morning Herald's current chief restaurant critic, Simon Thomsen, said yesterday the judgment meant that now "anything short of hagiography will be defamatory".
Veteran food critic Leo Schofield said the ruling set a bad precedent. "If a poor review leads to diminished returns at the box office of the theatre are we now going to say that it is due to the review and not to the quality of the work?" he asked.
David Griffiths, executive chef at Wildfire, one of Sydney's best restaurants, said it was laughable to suggest that one bad review could close a restaurant. Matthew Moran, the head chef of another popular restaurant, Aria, said his restaurant had benefited from the constructive criticism of food critics such as Mr Evans.
Further hearings will be held so that the newspaper can put forward its defence and for the court to decide if the owners of Coco Roco are entitled to damages.
The court's decision comes after a jury in Belfast upheld a restaurant owner's claim that a review in the Irish News was defamatory and awarded him £25,000 this year.