Napoleats
Dragonara Road
Paceville
Tripadvisor rating
5 stars

The Baron Bar
8, Triq iċ-Ċern,
Buġibba
Tripadvisor rating

Today’s ratings are unusual. The reason for this will be clear in a while.

It started with yet another discussion about tripadvisor. I have my highly biased, involuntarily elitist, and inevitably cynical views. Others contend that the ratings site is as democratic a system as it gets, because it represents the views of the many. There are over 700,000 reviews for establishments in Malta. That’s quite democratic.

I don’t like the notion of democracy but that’s another story for another time. In this specific case, I don’t think that the average diner reviewing eateries on tripadvisor provides a fair assessment of the dining circuit in Malta. Up in the top 10 there’s a pub in Buġibba that serves toasties and a pizzeria in Paceville that replaced Huggins.

How is democracy helping the valiant men and women, toiling in kitchens around the country, and who pour their hearts and souls into unbridled creativity and magnificent technique? How does the tourist, hellbent on extending their preference for a pint of lager and football on the telly to a warmer climate, help rate the true gems?

Well, there is one way to find out. I picked the two least likely eateries on the nationwide top-10 and went to both. In the name of research, of course.

I started with Napoleats. It is a pizzeria in the churning, heaving belly of Paceville. It is flanked with kebabs and gentlemen’s clubs, an unholy rhyme by many standards.

Back when studies showed that the colours red and yellow make us hungry, fast-food chains, from McDonald’s and Burger King to Pizza Hut and Wendy’s, used these two colours for their logos for decades.

Napoleats really went with the colour scheme so it feels like McDonald’s did in the 1980s. There’s plenty of cheerful red and yellow all over the place, faux brick, white tile and plastic furniture. Combined with its location, it sent me on a trip down memory lane to a time when a meal was anything we could eat at 3am.

Democracy led me to two places I wouldn’t have otherwise considered

They serve Italian fast food and seem to care about it more than most. Order your pizza, burger, or salad from the counter and take a beeper. When it buzzes, pick up your order and dig in. I had a panuozzo with the Neapolitan staple that is salsiccia e friarielli. The eponymous pizza is legendary so the same stuffing inside a panino made with the same sourdough base should be good. The better half went with the pizza with burrata, that soft cheese that’s a genius combo of mozzarella, stracciatella and cream. There’s also rucola and Parmesan shavings for colour and flavour.

I asked about beer, prepared for the worst, but they have some pretty decent Belgian brews and I picked one. Things were looking up.

Our food took about 10 minutes and is served on a tray that’s been prepared with a view to future laws about disposable plastics. Plates, napkins and even cutlery is compostable. Well done for making responsible choices, Napoleats. Now just add separate bins to complete the circle.

My panuozzo was decent. Fresh sausage and friarielli, the leafy first cousin of the turnip, were joined by a little bit of melted mozzarella for a meaty, salty, perhaps overly oily interior.

The pizza was probably more enjoyable. The base is good, particularly good for a fast-food pizzeria, and the toppings fresh and generous. If you compare this to the multitude of pizza-by-the-slice options that are available within a 200-metre radius from Napoleats, this is leagues ahead.

When I consider that this place is feeding the drunken hordes through the wee hours of the morning, they’re a significant step up from the choices I had available a few decades ago. Would I place their pizza among the top 10 on the islands and would I hop into the car and travel to Paceville for their food? No, I wouldn’t. Their rating is either a fluke, a cleverly engineered way of attracting customers, or just a glitch in the matrix. My next stop was Buġibba. It would have to be another night. I was too full of panuozzo.

The Baron Bar looks like many bars in Buġibba did up to a decade ago. Judging by the ratings I kind of expected the place to jump out at me as a clear winner over the other similar pubs in the area. There’s no draught beer. Ghosts of St Paddy’s past are strung up here and there in the forms of flags and posters from multiple years of drunken celebration. The pub is decorated with the usual mishmash of bar staples – Elvis portraits, foam Guinness pints, beer brand mirrors and faux number plates from around the world. Then there are the boards with witty aphorisms about drinking alcohol. ‘Don’t cry over spilt milk. It could have been beer.’ And so on and so forth.

It feels like any pub in Buġibba could if it hadn’t been refurbished for a few decades. This is not criticism. The Baron is a real pub, serving real beer to real people. It isn’t trying to be anything it is not. I was surrounded by old English men and a table of locals who simply asked for another round and were served the usual.

I asked for food and was expecting a touch of pride. This is the seventh best eatery in Malta after all. The man at the bar looked half apologetic. “Toasties?”, he asked with no attempt to veil his hesitation. Sure, I said, toasties would be grand. He offered ham and cheese, the first on the list. But I’m here with the best of Brittania so I’m not giving in so easily. Cheese and onion would do nicely.

I ordered a pint of Guinness, took the can and glass that were given to me, popped open the can and poured my own beer. VH1 played at me from a 24" CRT TV, causing a wave of nostalgia to well up from somewhere around my knees.

The toastie is served on a square plate with salted crisps and a warning that the inside is hot. Fair play. It is what a cheese and onion toastie should be. Decently browned on the outside, piping hot, and filled with melted cheese and finely chopped onion. When Buġibba produces its own Julia Child, this toastie will be in her book, snuggled between the kebab and sweet-and-sour pork.

More retired English people walked in. I had to try what I felt would be the piece de resistance – cheese and Branston pickle. So, time for another pint and another toastie. I’m getting all I can from one of the best eateries on the islands. The man cared for me. He really did. I’d left some crisps behind when dispatching the cheese and onion toastie to the depths of my belly. He pointed them out and didn’t take the plate, suggesting I finish my food. I haven’t felt so cared for at an eatery for a while. Maybe all we rate restaurants by is fickle. Maybe real care is all we need. That, and food that goes beyond toasties.

But then any other food at The Baron would be a travesty. It would mean a kitchen and a chef and an agency to do the menus and a social media strategy and a complete loss of the beautiful soul of The Baron.

I was beginning to suspect the tripadvisor success was just a runaway story that happened independent of the will of the good people who run The Baron. As much as I loathe the notion of tripadvisor and its unnecessarily democratic rating system I have to hand it to the people who rated The Baron for showing an appreciation for soul.

Of course, when we use the word soul in this context we refer to the kitchen and its ability to transport us. In this case, it’s the soul of the pub, the stoic service in the face of the rowdy drunk, the right kind of acknowledging your sorrows without passing judgement, the will to walk into the bar in the morning when the smell of departed spirits is threatening to bore a hole in your skull and to cheerfully turn all the chairs on to the tables and clean up regardless. I realised that my issue here is that I consider the notion of the real pub to be too sacred for a platform as unholy as tripadvisor.

I was prepared to pour venom all over the tripadvisor party but I walked away from The Baron with the wisdom that two pints of beer impart. Democracy led me to two places I wouldn’t have otherwise considered and they each have their merit. Do they deserve to be in the top 10? According to me they don’t but the people have spoken so there they are. And that’s why there aren’t my ratings at the top of this page today.

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