Arbiters of taste: The editors of the major food guides give a unique insight into the state of modern dining

What makes a good restaurant, what you can learn from a bread basket, and how you do you sweet-talk your waiter?
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Indy Lifestyle Online

The editors of Britain's restaurant guides are a diverse bunch, from the Harden brothers, Peter and Richard, who run their self-named Hardens guide by rallying against the snobbishness of "self-appointed food experts" to 93-year-old Egon Ronay, who comes from a family of restaurateurs. They are, thankfully, united by one simple sentiment: a love of food. Now, they have a new aficionado. Last month Andy Turvil became the editor of the AA's restaurant and pub guide.

Being the editor of a food guide is harder than we might think. Most editors eat out at least four times a week, which has its impact on their families, not to mention their waistlines. "That number of meals can go up considerably if I am going on a trip to a certain part of the country," explains Elizabeth Carter, editor of Which? magazine's Good Food Guide. "Then I do lunch, dinner, lunch, dinner. I might also check out a pub a day to see what's on offer. Then I have to stop for a while, it becomes too much." Ronay still frequently dines out.

Thankfully, most editors have people they can share their workload with. Ronay, author of the Egon Ronay Guide to British Eateries, did most of his own reviews for the 1957 first edition of his book launched. Now most editors rely on a team of qualified "inspectors" who travel around the UK assessing restaurants against a set of fixed criteria.

So what tips to they have about the state of the nation's restaurants? Here, the editors of the country's best known food guides describe what do's and don'ts are of assessing eateries.

Peter Harden, co-editor of 'Harden's UK restaurants'

What makes a good restaurant?

You are always looking at whether the restaurant succeeds on its own terms. And it is not all about the food, if it was, people would just stay at home and order in. Normally, it's a social experience, it's about setting up the right vibes. Humans like to feel relaxed.

What are the warning signs you should look out for?

Has anybody caught your eye and made you feel welcome? Are they fussed about you being there? If no, why would you want to give them your money? Also, if you go to the loos and they are dirty, it is a dead giveaway that there is a quality issue.

How do British restaurants shape up?

After years of worrying about what goes into supermarket ready-meals, people are at last waking up to the issue of what goes into restaurant and catering food Too often a so-called gastronomic feast is incredibly unhealthy in terms of calorie, fat, salt and sugar content; and consuming one too often leaves the diner feeling rubbish a few hours later. This issue is currently emerging into the spotlight and high time it is, too.

How should you complain if you aren't satisfied?

If you complain, the important thing is not to bottle it up so that you eventually snap. A good thing to remember is that even in good restaurants, bad things can happen. Talk to the manager, present the case and ask if they can achieve what you want.

What is your favourite restaurant?

I like a little restaurant in Soho called Andrew Edmunds, because the date I took there married me . It is an archetypal romantic choice. It certainly worked for me. It is lovely there, a converted Georgian townhouse renowned for its wine list and romantic dining possibilities. And what good value it is. My wife appreciates a man who doesn't just throw money at a situation.

Egon Ronay, author of 'the Egon Ronay Guide to British eateries'

What makes a good restaurant?

The quality of the food above every other aspect. If the service is not as it should be, that is bad. But it is of secondary importance.

What are the warning signs you should look out for?

The menu is an indication. If the menu is wide, and has a lot of dishes, it makes me feel uneasy because there will not be enough staff to make them properly.

How do British restaurants currently shape up?

In my view, I can't define food on the basis of nationality But it depends on what is on the plate. We can compare the quantity of restaurants, and in that respect, Britain is getting better, although France will still beat it. French wines are also better than British wines.

How should you complain if you aren't satisfied?

You shouldn't. I don't want to be known for throwing my weight around.

What is your favourite restaurant?

I have no favourite restaurants. I used to love the work of Andre Simon, but I always find that the best restaurant can be where you are best known. It is just as difficult to describe what is your favourite place, as to tell what makes your favourite painting. Something that instantly grabs your attention, really. The same applies to food.

Guy Dimond, group food and drink editor, 'Time Out London'

What makes a good restaurant?

Good food, good ambience, good service. But not always in that order. In terms of best restaurant, best for what? This is why we publish a restaurant guide, and have a website – you can choose for yourself what criteria you want (romantic, good value, good for people-watching, exceptional Indian food, etc). There is no glib, easy answer to this question.

What are the warning signs you should look out for?

Indifferent McService.

How do British restaurants shape up?

British restaurants should follow the spirit of pioneers such as St John, Moro, Fat Duck and the like, rather than aping their dishes.

How should you complain if you aren't satisfied?

Politely, with a smile.

What is your favourite restaurant?

It depends what you are looking for. You might have 10 places that you like in a year, which you like for different reasons, but it doesn't guarantee that other people will like them. It's not like watching a movie, say There Will Be Blood, in which you and a friend might have exactly the same experience. Restaurants change the whole time. On one evening you might experience great service but the next time you might be unlucky with it.

Elizabeth Carter , editor of the 'Which? Good Food Guide'

What makes a good restaurant?

It's not just the food. It has got to have a menu that draws you in. Exciting fresh food, well-cooked. A warm welcome and atmosphere is essential. It has got to feel comfortable. I gave Bray's Fat Duck a 10 out of 10, but that was a once-in-a lifetime experience.

What are the warning signs you should look out for?

You have a sense of it as soon as you walk in. Is there indifferent service or a menu that is poor? If the meal is too long, you suspect there has been a deep freeze. You develop an instinct for it after a while – it can just be a lack of interest from the staff.

How do British restaurants shape up?

We should put customers first with a warm welcome and an awareness that people should not have to spend a huge amount eating out.

How should you complain if you aren't satisfied?

A good restaurant would put it right, so point it out as you see it.

What is your favourite restaurant?

I really enjoyed going to L'Enclume in Cumbria, through beautiful countryside to beautiful village setting. It is not your modern British brasserie. The team there works with flavour and how food is on the plate.

Andy Turvil, editor of 'AA food and restaurant guide'

What makes a good restaurant?

It often depends what mood you are in. It can be something simple, like fresh seafood or mussels and clams in a restaurant overlooking the sea. Or, in some of the fine dining places, tremendous amounts of energy from the staff can make a difference.

What are the warning signs you should look out for?

You always want to see a lot of customers. If it is 8.30pm on a Saturday night and no one is inside then the management is doing something wrong. How they present themselves can be a useful indicator. Is there a menu outside? Is it fresh with today's date? In that case, they want you to come inside. The staff should not leave you standing around and there should be a proper welcome.

How do British restaurants shape up?

In the current climate, expect to see some cheaper cuts of meat. But don't panic – they're often full of flavour and more interesting than the usual prime cuts. It's an opportunity for chefs to cook something different, and for the public to be a little adventurous.

How should you complain if you aren't satisfied?

Complain at the time something bad happens, politely, but firmly.

What is your favourite restaurant?

Favourite experiences include sitting on the terrace at the Porthminster Beach Cafe in St Ives in the sunshine with three generations of my family and tucking into Helford River oysters and some fresh squid, or the wonders of the fine dining at places such as Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons, where you can relax and know that a team of professionals is working their socks off to give you the perfect evening.

Derek Bulmer, editor, Michelin Guide Great Britain & Ireland

What makes a good restaurant?

A warm welcome, friendly service and good value for money. We are looking for good quality produce and we like to find people who use locally sourced ingredients. We look for technical skill and, with the starred restaurants, those that demonstrate flair and creativity, as well as compatibility of flavour. Consistency is also important.

What are the warning signs you should look out for?

If the menu outside looks as though it has not changed for a long time, that is not a good sign. A less-than-warm welcome puts me off, as well as it being an empty place with unknowledgeable or disinterested staff. The bread at the start is a good indication of what is to follow.

How do British restaurants shape up?

The diversity and variety of what we have here is something other countries don't have. Traditional cuisine is not as strong as it would be, say, in Italy or France. So we have attracted variety instead.

How should you complain if you aren't satisfied?

If you go aggressively you won't get anywhere. You need to balance praise with complaint. I once had an overcooked steak... I said it was a delicious cut, but it was a pity it was cooked a bit more than I asked.

What is your favourite restaurant?

Can't give one – it's not something we do.

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