I've been keeping half an eye on the court case between Goodfellas and the Irish News.
Back in February 2007, Goodfellas Restaurant & Pizzeria at Kennedy Way successfully sued the Irish News for £25,000 over a review in August 2000 by restaurant critic Caroline Workman. The review had been less than positive - scoring 1/5 - and the restaurant's successful action looked likely to make reviewers vulnerable. I wondered if I should think twice in the future before dashing off an online AiB post that would describe a bad experience?
Then last week, the Irish News won its appeal, and the case will now go to re-trial if the plaintiff (Goodfellas) decides to go ahead. (Could be a costly business if one side was to lose.)
But the intervention of the The Times (of London) really took the biscuit when they flew their critic Giles Coren across to Belfast last weekend to check out Goodfellas for himself. (Thanks to Mick Fealty over at Slugger for the heads up.)
In an effort to demonstrate what the appeal court's ruling had explained Coren didn't hold back in outlining his opinion with a heavy sprinklig of exaggeration to season the less-than-serious piece. So while the review reads like a savage attack, remember it's written in the context of the five points that Coren summarised at the top of his piece:
1) That anything written in an article flagged as a review is to be accepted as “comment” (regardless of whether it is presented as opinion or fact);
2) That the bare substratum of fact required to sustain that comment is that the reviewer has had the experience he or she claims, in this case that he has ordered and been served the meal described;
3) That “fair comment” is defined as any comment an honest person could have drawn from the “facts” available;
4) That a comment may be called “fair”, “however exaggerated, or even prejudiced, the language may be”;
5) That malice has no power to mitigate a defence of fair comment, as long as the reviewer genuinely holds the views he expressed.
(emboldened to help understand what Coren was getting at when he penned his acidic review)
As well as taking a look at dishes in front of him, Coren cast his eye around that night's cliental to criticise the diners - "almost everyone is fat" and the men have "big square heads and little pink faces".
His pasta starter was "fine ... fine in the sense of being the sort of thing I used to cook as a student when I was too stoned to dial a pizza" and the chips seemed to quite acceptable.
But his impressions of the main course of pollo marsalla (which featured in the original Irish News review - can't find it online) was much more severe. I quote:
"Then my pollo marsala arrives: an oval dish containing a chocolate coloured liquid and pale lumps of something. I eat a mouthful. The sweetness is, indeed, alarming. As is the consistency of the meat. Without the court papers to confirm what I had ordered, I’d have guessed I was eating thin strips of mole poached in Ovaltine.
It is revolting. It is ill-conceived, incompetent, indescribably awful. A dish so cruel I weep not only for the animal that died to make it, but also for the mushrooms. Ms Workman said it was inedible but, to be honest, as it sits before me, congealing quietly, I cannot leave it alone but return to it every few minutes with the grim fascination of a toddler mesmerised by a pile of its own faeces, nibbling at it, gurning with revulsion, then nibbling some more. If you’ve ever sniffed your finger after scratching your arse, and then done it again, then this dish may not be entirely wasted on you."
Unfortunately, the apple crumble dessert didn't improve matters:
"Alas, what they brought me resembled a mixture of budget muesli and aquarium gravel served in an old man’s slipper. The accompanying custard was pleasant only in that it reminded me of a scented pencil eraser I used to enjoy sucking in the hot summer of 1976."
Coren demonstrated what the court's ruling allowed reviewers to say, using caricature and exaggeration to lampoon the West Belfast diners and the meal he ordered.
Given the Goodfellas is still doing a roaring local trade, it's difficult to see how the original Irish News article could be proven to have damaged their long-term business. But then, I'm not a lawyer!
And it's certainly difficult to see how anyone could argue that an Alice-in-Wonderland review in a national (shrunk) broadsheet could do any damage either. In fact, the publicity surrounding the case, its appeal, and now Coren's review could only be good for business. It makes me want to pop on my fat suit and pink face to go across and experience the atmosphere and menu of Goodfellas for myself!
While as a one-off it's fine, I do hope that newspaper restaurant reviewers can go back to their normal business of reviewing the food and atmosphere in eating establishments, rather than branching out into the world of comedy writing.
And for the record, having originally been less than impressed with Gourmet Burger Bank on the Belmont Road, it did improve. We called in around six last night on the way into town, and the Garlic Burger, chunky fries and onion rings were divine - and the service was fast too.
Update - Having written most of this post, I’ve just realised that the Goodfellas story and Coren himself featured on Nolan’s phone-in show on Monday morning, (listen again for seven days) where he was accused of "test[ing] a principle of law by making offensive remarks" with one caller pointing out that his article (now corrected) referred to the Irish Times instead of the Irish News. Other callers saw the funny side.