A mere decade ago I remember sitting with sinking heart in the dining-room of a formerly splendid provincial station hotel. So depressing was the ambience that we christened it 'the H-block'. Not far away sat an elegant businessman, or barrister, judging by the cut of his jib, his hand-stitched lapels and Old Etonian tie. All of a sudden a waiter, whose spavined frame and stained fustian recalled Dickens's Smike, materialised from the shadows and leaned over the customer's shoulder. What Geordie delicacy would he recommend, I wondered? What wonder of Northern cuisine? 'Are you tekkin' the grill, Jack?' inquired the waiter. The elegant diner recoiled as though goosed with a cattle-prod.

It was all horribly reminiscent of an ill-lit restaurant in Bulgaria where I was once startled to see, under the more-or-less English translations of fish dishes, the chilling words 'steamed crap'. I think it was a misprint for carp, but there remained a niggling doubt.

I can't answer for Bulgaria but in Britain over the past decade things have changed immeasurably for the better. Now waiters in some hotel restaurants will pamper you to within an inch of your life, sweeping the cloth between courses as though preparing the baize for Hurricane Higgins's final pot. Having co-run a restaurant for six years, however, I must admit that in this department the French still have the edge on us.

As for accusing hotels of catering too much for foodies, it's a bit like saying some schools only cater for bright kids. Of course there are hotels where chefs aim to please the more sophisticated palate. That's as it should be. If you'd rather have bangers and mash, no one's forcing you to eat at the Hyde Park.

Now the question of pretentious menus, that's something else again. Some, it's true, do sound as though the compiler has shredded a thesaurus and chucked the pieces in the air, transcribing them where they land. Tiresome though this may be, it's no more than foodie foreplay, for those who believe it's better to travel than to arrive. Bollocks, of course, but harmless.

No, fair's fair. The important thing is, we're trying. We often charge outrageously for rooms, and it's cheaper to buy a telephone than call long distance from some hotels - but we're getting better.

Maybe, Good Hotel Guide, we should spend a bit more time celebrating the good news, and a little less on the one sport in which, sadly, we British excel - knocking.

(Photograph omitted)

Comments