It's springtime in Edinburgh.
Apart from the return of the birds who have drowsily emerged from their winter stupors, and apart from the first green shoots struggling to gain a foothold in the mud, and apart from the incessant daylight which provides extended viewing opportunities of the rain outside your window (just in case you missed it over the winter), spring is the time for the annual debut of The List.
The List, or more accurately, The List Eating & Drinking Guide, is an offshoot of The Weekly List, a popular events magazine. The List foodguide comes out once per year, and reviews every restaurant, bar, cafe and food shop in Edinburgh and Glasgow. It is regarded by many as Scotland's food bible, and several people I know base their dining choices exclusively on its recommendations. When I first arrived here I thought it must be a godsend to foodies, perhaps a local Gault-Millau or Zagat-type treasure. I had a lot to learn.
It wouldn't be an understatement to say that I have actually grown to hate The List. I mean, I know it happens to be the only comprehensive catalog of all places with things edible, and amazingly its authors manage to (re)review just about each and every place mentioned in the guide before its annual issue. I also freely admit that without The List, I wouldn't know half of the places to eat in this city. But this pales in comparison with the reason I hate The List: the reviews, to put it in plain English, suck. I'm tempted to say that the reviewers outright lie, but that may be courting impoliteness a little too intimately. Let's just say I have learned the hard way that I have to take every restaurant review with a bowlful of salt. The thing is - and this should set off warning bells no matter where in the world you are - that they never have a bad word to say about any restaurant. In Scotland to not have a bad word to say about any eating establishment is like wearing shorts and flip-flops all year round. It is indicative of a severely frayed connection with reality.
Here's a story to help you understand my history with The List. Despite the fact that several of the worst restaurants I had eaten at in Edinburgh had been the recipients of faultless reviews, I still decided to trust The List to pick out a 'special occasion' restaurant to celebrate an anniversary several months ago. The restaurant we chose was marked with The List's special Orange Square, which means it is one of their favorites in the category (which, by the way, was the 'pretentious and expensive' category). The review itself was particularly glowing, with descriptions of the way in which this restaurant had remained at the top of Edinburgh's dining scene for more than a decade due to the unwavering commitment of its legendary chef in sourcing the finest ingredients available, and how this particular chef's preparations were delightfully cutting-edge, yet wholesomely unpretentious. Well, the atmosphere in the restaurant was delightful, which now that I think back, formed a suspiciously large part of the review. The food, on the other hand, was just okay, at least I think - you see, we didn't actually get to taste very much of it. The meal consisted of retro-trendy nouvelle-cuisine sized portions of 'rustic Continental favorites' (which translated, apparently means tiny portions of simple French food). It didn't actually look very rustic to me, but then again I didn't have a microscope with me. For two small courses each and a bottle of their 'house' wine (we were too dismayed to risk dessert), we forked out around $200. It was at that moment I swore to fire bomb The List's head office.
I might have done so, too, if a small nugget of wisdom hadn't been recently imparted to me by someone who has lived here a bit longer. According to my informant, there is a code you need to learn before you can use The List. It basically involves learning that certain words have a deeper, subliminal meaning. The cheat sheet looks something like this:
cozy = cramped
cutting-edge/elegant/trendy = obscenely expensive
unpretentious = drab/ugly/plain
reliable cooking = unimaginative slop
rustic = plain/dull/simple, or in the case of food probably involving potatoes
pleasant = unpleasant
safe = unexciting
easygoing atmosphere = inattentive service
"the perfect eatery for those who crave choice" = an eatery that has nothing going for it but the length of its menu
Thus informed, the reviews in The List actually make a lot of sense. When the new issue recently came out, for example, I found myself chuckling vindictively as I saw that the reviewers were ruthless indeed, and that all those horrible places I've been to got slammed with the reviews they deserved. Don't tell anyone, but I've even started entertaining the possibility of eating out again based upon its recommendations. I'm convinced now that there must be dozens of fabulous restaurants out there, just waiting to reward my newfound code-breaking skills. For the first time in four years, good food may be within my grasp!
I'll let you know just as soon I can afford to find out.