Food Month podcast: The life and work of a restaurant critic

In the Irish Times Food Month podcast, Catherine Cleary shares her reviewing secrets


Menus today range from overly fussy menus to downright stark. As someone who earns a living eating at restaurants, what is Catherine Cleary’s favourite kind of restaurant menu? In the second Food Month podcast The Irish Times restaurant critic talks about “the sweet spot between novella and haiku”, and how she enjoys menus that “start to get your juices flowing”.

The podcast offers the inside scoop on what it’s like to eat food and then write about it, and Cleary is illuminating about her attitude to reviewing.

She tells food writer Lilly Higgins: “I realise how difficult it is to make even pretty bad food. A lot of work goes into it. You have to be fair to anybody who is putting themselves on a plate. So you choose your words carefully. There’s enough abuse out there.”

Listen to the Podcast

On the other hand, she talks about “working for the reader, rather than for the restaurant”, and how there’s a “balance has to be struck”, where you say honestly if a reader is going to the restaurant will enjoy it.

They chat about citizen critics and food bloggers, and the contrasting role of the restaurant critic in a weekly column. “There is a lot of noise and commercial interests” out there, says Cleary, but “we are lucky in The Irish Times that we are not paid by people to say anything nice about them.” Our restaurant reviews are not sponsored but “an independent voice”.

Most of all, Cleary wants people to enjoy reading her reviews. She says she enjoys reading other writers’ reviews of places she will never get to, and she “recognises the craft in making them entertaining and readable. That doesn’t have to be at the expense of someone who’s trying to run a business. I try to get the balance.”

In the podcast Cleary also talks about the mechanics (she takes notes on her phone, and sometimes photographs dishes); Irish produce she’s enjoying (“I have a bit of a bread thing going at the moment”); what will be the effect of higher VAT coming back for restaurants in January; fish shops and restaurants, and she suggests perfect presents for the food lovers. (But you’ll have to listen to find out more.)

For more on Food Month, see