How to work out where to eat

Britain's cornucopia of restaurants makes expert advice invaluable. But how do you know whose words to trust? Thomas Sutcliffe guides us through the guides
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Indy Lifestyle Online

"When all the world is on the move, and people fret and chafe about its fearfulness and uncertainty," writes Fred Inglis in the preface to the 2002 edition of the Good Food Guide, "a fine restaurant is a reassurance that certain antique, necessary values may still be trusted." The professor of cultural studies at the University of Sheffield and restaurant inspector of long standing looks back at what the Good Food Guide, now in its 50th year, has done for eating out in Britain.

As a bulwark against barbarism I suspect that haute cuisine is now looking rather less sturdy than it might have done when Mr Inglis wrote those words, but that isn't the only problem with his trencherman philosophy. The restaurant world is hardly insulated from alteration, after all, as a sombre listing at the beginning of Harden's London Restaurants 2002 reminds us. It names 131 new recruits and no less than 65 fallen in action, the honourable dead of the never-ending war against insolvency. Faced with this unnerving attrition rate it's not surprising that fearfulness and uncertainty are often aroused by the experience of going to restaurants, rather than soothed by it.

Which is where the guides come in, of course, valiantly attempting to map the shifting sands of culinary achievement. It is a Sisyphean task and almost all the guides depend on a volunteer army to keep on top of it. Harden's boasts 5,300 reporters annually trudging their way through 900,000 meals, while Zagat's makes do with 3,700 participants eating 482,500 meals. Both the Good Food Guide and the AA use professional inspectors (a squad of 30 in the case of the latter) but these, too, take account of punters' reactions. The theory seems to be that the more palates you have on the job, the more likely you are to sift out the vagaries of taste or even honesty. "You can corrupt one man or a couple... You can't bribe an army", as Raymond Postgate said of the Good Food Guide's contributing members. In practice, though, this democratic process can often result in a contradictory babel of voices. It is most conspicuous in Zagat's and Harden's, both of which paste recommendations into a messy collage of subjective reaction. Here's Zagat's on Gordon Ramsay's Chelsea restaurant: "'Superb', 'spectacularly presented' New French fare and 'inarguably wonderful', 'pampering service' from 'warm' staff combine to create the 'quintessence' of 'first-class' 'fine dining'."

"'Fantastically' 'irritating', isn't 'it'"? – a fine hash of individual experience which ends up almost entirely tasteless. Although a little black box at the beginning of entries notionally denotes unanimity, all too often you find fence-sitting in the entries that follow. Portrait, for instance, the NPG's rooftop restaurant, has "good, clean" British cooking which "some consider 'not great'". In terms of utility, in other words, this entry gives you the address and telephone number and not much else. If you like lists, though, then Zagat is the guide for you – incorporating 12 "best of" charts and three indexes – one of which breaks down into another 41 special feature lists – including Outdoor Dining, Fireplaces, Power Scenes and Teflons (a useful category for those restaurants that prosper in the teeth of their own inadequacy). Harden's – which follows an almost identical method and layout to Zagat's, has a distinct edge on it when it comes to resolving uncertainty in the mind of a prospective customer and also supplies 16 different indexes and cuisine and area overviews – pretty useful when your own inspiration flags.

The Rough Guide to London Restaurants actually includes a short section called "Getting Off The Fence", in which Charles Campion identifies his personal favourites in a number of categories – rather perversely leaving Gordon Ramsay off the list of Best French but including him in Best Value Set Lunch. The entries here offer a kind of virtual menu degustation – identifying trademark dishes and including their prices (a perishable but useful bit of information). But the book also falls prey to the illusion of superior organisation – a professional hazard for all guide editors. The problem is that the user's ignorance is a constantly moving target. Sometimes you know what you want to eat but not where, while at other times you know how much you want to spend but not precisely what you want to spend it on.

A good guide has to do many things: it should act as an appetiser, a gazetteer, an educator and a navigational chart – steering you away from reefs and riptide. Elevate any one of those principles over the others and you risk irritating at least some of the users some of the time. The Time Out Eating and Drinking Guide, for instance, probably the most comprehensive of the London guides, divides its entries into cuisines, then further subdivides them into areas. It's full of useful information – including menu glossaries for the more arcane cuisines – but you might need a pocket guide to find your way around it. Similarly, The Rough Guide divides the capital into localities, effectively replacing one straightforward alphabetical order (the only decent principle) with, by my count, 52 little ones.

It does, however, convey a personal passion for food – its only problem being that very little can touch the Good Food Guide for gastronomic zeal. This is the sort of guide in which the preface dreamily recalls a two-page entry on Tante Claire, written by a former editor, as if it was an elegy by Keats. This is the sort of guide that can interrupt a hymn to Gordon Ramsay's cooking with a tremor of foodie panic: "Is the normally show-stopping seared foie gras quite as sizzlingly à point as before?" it muses fretfully. "Is the wonderfully fresh and vivid tartare of scallops slightly more acidulated than previously?" This is the sort of guide, in short, that Frasier Crane and his brother Niles would use if they ever made a gastronomic tour of Britain.

Marco Pierre White might recommend The AA Restaurant Guide (it says so on the cover), but then that's hardly surprising, since you will look in vain in its 700 pages for the faintest whiff of discriminating criticism. Elsewhere his growing chain of restaurants gets some dusty and dismissive reviews ­ but in the AA guide there's not an unkind word to be heard. Indeed, if you had only this book to go on, you could easily believe that it is all but impossible to eat badly in Britain, or to encounter anything but warm and friendly service. The Good Food Guide is more realistic and more responsible ­ recognising that high standards are never effortless and everyone has their off days. Rather tellingly it finds no restaurant in Britain worthy of its top mark of 10 ­ implying that we currently have nothing that can "comfortably stand comparison with the stiffest international competition". But in an uncertain world a wary guide is far more useful than a blithely generous one.

'Harden's London Restaurants 2002' £8.99; 'Good Food Guide 2002' £15.99; 'The Rough Guide to London Restaurants' £7.99; 'The AA Restaurant Guide 2002' £14.99; 'The Time Out Eating and Drinking Guide 2002' £9.99; 'Zagat's London Restaurants 2002' £7.99

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