This time of year sees a flurry of Dining Awards and Guides being published, which once again stimulates the age old debate of just how you can possibly rate a restaurant fairly, given all the differing criteria we all now demand.
The ‘Big Three’ guides that are most highly thought of and trusted are Michelin, followed closely by AA and the Waitrose Good Food Guide. These three heavy weights are all inspector led guides but have differing criteria. Michelin awards solely on food and its inspectors remain a closely guarded secret. To appear in the AA guide and gain an award an establishment has to actually subscribe into the scheme. Good Food Guide gives points for service, ambiance and decor. These guides regularly receive criticism however, both for awarding and not awarding. Even Michelin, established since 1900, has been accused in recent years of losing its integrity by awarding a vast quantity of stars to Japan, at a time when they are looking to boost their profile in the tyre market in the country.
‘50 Best Restaurants‘ as sponsored by San Pellegrino has established itself as the definitive guide to the ‘Worlds Best’, very much promoting the creme de la creme of elite Chef’s and is widely anticipated and then much debated in foodie circles. The Elite Traveler and Laurent Perrier Top 100 is also gaining in popularity, presided over by eponymous restaurant critic Andy Hayler, the only person to have eaten in every 3 star Michelin restaurant in the world.
Gaining more momentum and pace with the rapid advance of online search facilities are user-driven sites such as Zagat and Trip Advisor, who purport to be able to add their own scores next to Google searches for restaurants. By logging site hits and ranking most popular online searches a restaurant is provided with a rating of the starkest kind and the view is that Zagat will be carrying much more weight in Europe by next year.
With the blogosphere brimming with opinions from serious influencers and highly respected food writers this is the age where successful bloggers can attract a larger audience than a TV show. The list of winners in this years Guild of Food Writer Awards reflected the increasing importance of online publishing, with the award for Food Journalist of the Year going to Noah May for work published in digital magazine The Arbuturian. It is also true however that anyone can set themselves up as a food critic these days, and Trip Advisor has certainly harnessed the burgeoning ranks of online content from diners happy to share experience good and bad in almost real time.
The most recent high profile restaurant guide published was the Sunday Times Top 100 Restaurants last weekend. This list is produced in association with Hardens and prides itself on being based purely on diners feedback. Whilst there are some that would much prefer the word of an actual punter as opposed to an inspector with a criteria to fulfil, there are equally those that distrust diners with personal vendettas or campaigns from teams of ‘voters’ who have never set foot in said establishment.
While the top three guides seem to be pretty much in agreement on the heavy weights, what truly baffles is when guides differ completely – leaving readers surely thinking it is all a total lot of nonsense and wondering who indeed they can trust.
Winner of the 2013 National Restaurant Awards (sponsored by Restaurant magazine) held in October was The Hand and Flowers in Marlow, with their chef and owner Tom Kerridge also picking up the Chef’s Chef of the year award in the September AA awards and retaining their two Michelin stars in this years Red Guide also published in September. Yet the Sunday Times failed to recognise the restaurant at all in their Top 100 Restaurants in Britain published in November. Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester, with its three Michelin stars, also failed to make the top 100 which is possibly easier explained as its appeal is to an international audience staying at a flagship London hotel. The Hand and Flowers is a pub in Marlow. There is no bias towards this type of establishment within the guide as The Yorke Arms in Yorkshire made it to a dizzying no 3 of the list. However, when the Sunday Times editorial talks of diners “seeking out in sufficient number to get them onto the list” it’s hard to believe there are more fine diners travelling to Harrogate than Marlow.
This same point (Hand and Flowers and Alain Ducasse not featuring) was picked up 2 years ago by prolific food bloggers and respected online critics ‘The Critical Couple‘ and it would appear The Sunday Times opinion has not changed. Have the industry lost the plot by honouring a restaurant the dining public no longer favour? Or do Hardens ‘control group’ of long term contributors have their own favourites – and opposite?
What has to be addressed however is the speed at which these guides are updated, and whether this generations need for real-time information will be satisfied by a twice yearly review. More likely that a Twitter round up of who had a good meal that night will be more readily trusted in the future. Twitter handles such @hollowlegs and @eatlikeagirl have growing legions of followers and info on pop-ups and restaurants with free tables are passed at lightening speed via hashtags.
At the end of the day, what constitutes the ‘Best’ restaurant will differ for all of us. Just a quick straw poll in the office threw up widely differing criteria on what we all look for in a great restaurant. Some preferred ‘grand decor and designer cutlery’ whilst others wanted ‘comfortable seats and child-friendly’. ‘Food I can’t cook at home’ was top of one colleague’s list while ‘dishes I at least recognise’ was on another. The only opinion you can truly trust it would seem is your own.
Design Restaurants lists restaurants by invitation only on our guide with no charge. We list all Michelin, AA (3 Rosettes) and Sunday Times Top 100 Restaurants along with notable newcomers. A unique feature of Design Restaurants is a denotation of each of these awards against each restaurants listing . Member recommendations are also considered. Many restaurants enrol into the Design Restaurants club section complimentary and offer preferential benefits to club members. The aim of Design Restaurants is to provide the most comprehensive list of luxury (or fine dining) restaurants in the UK.
What we don’t try and do is tell you which ones are the best. We leave that bit up to you to decide.