Fuelling our long-running rivalry with our cousins across the Channel, a new guide claims British gastropubs serve better food than many traditional French bistros.

Turning his attentions to gourmet watering holes for the first time, the country's most famous critic, Egon Ronay, praised the most dramatic change to British eating habits for half a century.

Friendly pub staff give customers a warmer welcome than some "surly" waiters in France, according to his latest guide, published today.

"The question is, where have all these good, often outstanding cooks been hiding all this time?" it asked.

Mr Ronay launched a direct jibe yesterday at French President Jacques Chirac, who famously said of Britain in the run-up to the Olympic bid announcement: "After Finland, it's the country with the worst food."

Describing the emergence of gastropubs, he retorted: "Though around for some time they are a phenomenon, having spread explosively with a surprisingly high standard of cooking and warm-hearted atmosphere - altogether the biggest change in the catering scene in my fifty years' experience as a restaurateur and critic.

"And it shows how hasty and ill-informed President Chirac's condemnation earlier this year of the British food scene has been."

Reflecting this rising scene, the Egon Ronay's 2006 Guide to the best restaurants and gastropubs in the UK now includes star ratings for the latter. It named the Star in Harome, North Yorkshire, as 2006's best gastropub, praising its story-book charm, smiling efficiency and " original creations, every morsel bursting with flavour". China Tang at the Dorchester in London was named as top restaurant.

While none of the gastronomic hostelries have been deemed to merit three stars - an honour only held by four restaurants - 10 fall in the two-star category. They often produce food of restaurant standards despite having considerably less space and resources, the guide said.

Quoting such delicacies as "lobster ravioli with gossamer-thin pasta, foamy shellfish broth and crunchy, tender young fennel", the guide stated: "Amazingly, these delights are created mostly in kitchens a fifth or even a tenth of the size of those in grand restaurants, yet frequently producing food that achieves the same standards."

Praising the unstuffy informality of pubs, it continued: "The great importance and the greatest difference from French bistros - which strike you as soon as you cross the threshold - lie in the immediate friendliness and heartiness of the welcome, often by the family of the proprietor."

The top 10 gastropubs

The Alma, Wandsworth, London

Black Boys Inn, Hurley, Berkshire

Bull's Head, Ashford in the Water, Derbyshire

Guinea Grill, Mayfair, London

The House, Islington, London

The Salisbury, Kilburn, London

The Star, Harome, North Yorkshire

Three Fishes, Mitton, Lancashire

The Waterdine, Llanfair Waterdine, Shropshire

Yorke Arms, Ramsgille, North Yorkshire

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