GUIDING STARS

TRIED & TESTED; Are restaurant guides all in the best possible taste, or are some difficult to digest? Our panellists test six

Invaluable to both locals and strangers, restaurant guides can help sort the wheat from the chaff in terms of food, service, cost and even that most ethereal of catering commodities, ambience. But just as the guides are subject to the idiosyncrasies of their editors, so would- be diners look for as many different things in a guide as they do a restaurant. In an attempt to find the right fit between book and buyer, we recruited half a dozen regular restaurant-goers of differing tastes and pockets to assess half a dozen guide books.

THE PANEL

Lucy Portch is a marketing and special events director by profession and finds herself eating out about seven or eight times a week - "It's become a real hobby, too." Scottish-based John McNabe spends two days a week in London on business and his "whole life trying to find decent places to eat." Sophie Widmark, recent mother of one, was encountering problems eating out en famille ("Why should we have to eat fast food just because the baby comes too?"). Nicholas Allen describes himself as "a big Oriental fan" and an avid follower of restaurant critic Jonathan Meades - "If only he would write a guidebook; I always agree with him." From inside the trade, Susan Millgate is a restaurant consultant, who knows all the guides as well as all the restaurants. I completed the panel in my capacity as a part-time restaurant critic of This is London magazine.

THE TEST

We focused on London guides in our selection in order to contain the test within manageable parameters. Our main criteria were that the guides should be easy to understand, well written and accurate and good value for money.

**SQUARE MEAL 1997

pounds 5.95

The advertisements (for corporate gifts, event organisation, conferences and banqueting) at the back of Square Meal hint at this guide's City origins, from which it also derives its name (Square Mile). Most copies are distributed free to London offices and revenue is derived from the advertising. Panellists were not too impressed by Square Meal, despite its colour photographs and chatty copy. Lucy Portch found it "rarely discriminating" and objected to buzzy words such as "savvy", "terrific" and "classy". Other complaints ranged from the way types of cuisine are not listed alphabetically within each geographical area to the physical structure of the book, which, Susan Millgate noted, "kept shutting, and once the spine was bent back the pages started to fall out". She liked the "menu jargon" and chefs' biographies, adding, "it's brilliant if you get it free". John McNabe spoke for most of us with his worry about impartiality and wondered about the section on European cities ("Is this to flatter the reader that he's a jetsetter?"). Also, there is "an irritating idiots-guide tasting notes for cognac and port" (Lucy) and the food glossary describes fettucine as a type of Italian bread. Nick Allen wrote, "Behind the cover of Square Meal lies the Argos catalogue of restaurant guides. Annoying adverts, mouth parching descriptions."

***EVENING STANDARD LONDON RESTAURANT GUIDE 1997

pounds 9.99

As the only guide we looked at that is composed by one critic - the London Evening Standard's Fay Maschler - this book stands or falls by the reader's appreciation of the author's view. Susan Millgate liked the consistency of one critic and felt Londoners would be familiar with Maschler's views through her newspaper column. The book is a favourite of Lucy Portch. "She is very know- ledgeable about cooking - she will say if the risotto is made with the wrong type of rice or whether palm vinegar has been used in blending spices - I personally love all this detail." The rest of the panel decided they were not fans. Nick Allen said the lack of rating scale and scarce criticism "leaves the reader none the wiser. Though I did compare a few of my worst memories, and if you read between the lines she was saying the same thing." Sophie Widmark found the prose "verbose and pretentious at times" and whereas some of us thought the plus and minus summaries under each entry useful - not to mention witty - she was confused by them. Witness "Carluccio, look to your morels" - a real foodie pun that she felt would be "more at home as one of the philosophical ramblings in a Chinese fortune cookie." Out-of-towner John McNabe also found it "too selective for my taste, esoteric and clubby" and where Lucy Portch chuckled at Maschler's intimacy with all the chefs ("She could probably divulge their sex lives if she had more space"), he felt she "could get more restaurants in by cutting the gossip."

*****HARDEN'S LONDON RESTAURANT GUIDE 1997

pounds 7.95

This pocket-sized red guide was voted the winner simply because it was the most comprehensive and quick and easy to use. It is based almost entirely on the opinions of its "samplers" - restaurant-goers who contribute to Harden's annual survey - with editorial comment added by the brothers Harden, who claim to visit each of the 1,000-odd restaurants featured. While Nick Allen described it as a "book of soundbites", its USP, according to Lucy Portch, is that "its reviews are based on a value for money concept, which is after all, what most people want." Its user-friendly, one-to- five (one is excellent) rating system compares food quality with that of restaurants in the same price bracket, so Kastoori at pounds 14 per head gets a one on the basis that the food is superb and so cheap, while Marco Pierre White's The Restaurant gets a three because although the food is brilliant, at pounds 98 it ought to be. Susan Millgate found it "ruder and more irreverent than Zagat about some restaurants and hugely entertaining about others." The indexes scored a bull's-eye with Sophie Widmark: "The children's section features such things as the availability of high chairs and children's menus. The maps are great and there are no ads." John McNabe heralded Harden's as "the most logical of all the guides".

**1997 LONDON ZAGAT RESTAURANT SURVEY

pounds 6.95

Since this slim red volume of reviews allegedly based on reader responses closely resembles Harden's in size, format and colour, many panellists were led to make odious comparisons. Launched in the UK this year (the guide is well established in the US), it has a much more complex rating system, calculating food, decor, service and cost out of 30, which seemed to Susan Millgate "unnecessarily complicated when the descriptions are so brief". "It doesn't include important information like last order times or which credit cards are taken," pointed out Lucy Portch, but it has endless lists, telling you which restaurants are pudding specialists or have fireplaces. Suspicious of its claim to be based on reader surveys, the enterprising Ms Portch e-mailed 250 friends and colleagues to find out if any had contributed their views. None had - though many had written to Harden's. Local panellists felt the guide's editors needed a lesson in London geography; it's more than an estate agent's exaggeration to include a restaurant in Wood Green, N22, under Highgate, N6, for example. John McNabe thought the entries "punchy and upbeat", but spoke for all of us with his castigation of the "nasty paper and ugly typeface", Nick Allen was exhausted by his encounter with Zagat's. "It's rather like the orienteer's guide to eating," he noted. "Grid reference, solve the code, pant, pant, and on to the next clue. I would carry this around for spontaneous moments but I wouldn't risk an important meal on this alone."

***THE GOOD FOOD GUIDE 1997

pounds 14.99

Though the most expensive guide here, the well-respected Good Food Guide is a national survey and works out to be the best value in terms of price per page. It's a serious volume which is great for foodies, with loving descriptions of memorable dishes, clear maps and precise information, including wheelchair access, baby facilities and so on. Sophie Widmark found the "descriptions too long and ornate, like richly dressed foie gras," though she agreed with the other panellists that the reviews were fair. Susan Millgate said, "It's not so good if you're looking for a certain type of food in a non-central London location," while John McNabe reckoned he "could do with a London-only version." Nick Allen rated the Good Food Guide as "a solid performer verging on stodgy. The layout is uninviting and hard to read under street lights or in a phone box. I'd leave it in the car for those times you're away from your patch and meeting your auditor." Lucy Portch approved of its campaigns in the introductory essays for things like non-smoking sections and educating young diners, but, she said, "it can appear both parochial and patronising - getting excited about finding a restaurant in the sticks serving rucola and truffle oil, for example."

****TIME OUT EATING AND DRINKING GUIDE

pounds 8

Most panellists were very enthusiastic about this coffee table-sized guide, produced by the publishers of London's weekly listings magazine. It caters for all budgets and all cuisines, from Jewish to Vietnamese and ice-cream parlours to haute cuisine. It was the favourite of Nick Allen, who lauded its "remarkable coverage if you live within the M25" and said "the individual critiques build one's trust in the judgement of the reviewers - they can be pretty bolshie." Susan Millgate liked "features like 'Korean dining dos and don'ts' and the fact that each section has a critics' choice. Plus, the fax-a-menu service means you can receive the current menu rather than reading mouth-watering descriptions of dishes and then discover none of them is available." The Time Out guide failed to win mainly because it has no rating system and because many panellists were oddly suspicious of the relationship between editorial and advertising. I say oddly, because by cross-referencing advertisers with reviews, it's easy enough to see that many of the guide's clients get no mention at all and others receive lukewarm reviews. It was deemed "most at odds with my own perceptions" by Lucy Portch, although she conceded that "the 1997 edition has a more realistic tone than before - one may pay pounds 25.50 for a main course at La Tante Claire and not be a raving right-winger."

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