Food guide drops country hotels for charging too much

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THE LINEN is crisp, the cutlery gleams and the menu promises a rare treat. When it comes to first impressions, Britain's country-house hotels have few rivals. But when it comes to the food on the plate, they have been found wanting.

THE LINEN is crisp, the cutlery gleams and the menu promises a rare treat. When it comes to first impressions, Britain's country-house hotels have few rivals. But when it comes to the food on the plate, they have been found wanting.

Tomorrow some of the country's most prestigious dining establishments will be officially told they have been dropped from the new edition of one of Britain's premier restaurant guides, The Good Food Guide, because they no longer give value for money.

While the setting may be lavish, both the food and service offered in many country-house restaurants often fail to deliver, according to Which?, the book's publishers. The researchers have concluded that the food can be competent but, at a price of up to £70 a head, this is no longer reason enough for customers to be satisfied.

Researchers concluded that many of the restaurants were offering what they called "10 out of 10" prices for cooking that was only "three out of 10" in quality. "If that is the case then they really have to be offering something else really special, such as different food or outstanding service," said Jim Ainsworth, editor of the 2000 Good Food Guide.

"Competence is no longer enough. Paying huge sums of money to be bored by food is not what customers are looking for." To some, fine food may be little more than mere pretension, where garlic sauce becomes aioli and mushrooms are transformed into champignons but the stakes are high. Inclusion in The Good Food Guide can make or break an establishment. It matters a great deal and last night the country hotels, about 12 in number, were defiant, pleading not guilty to the claim that they were no longer up to scratch.

Thomas Harrington, the proprietor of Healds Hall hotel at Liversedge, between Leeds and Heckmondwike, was phlegmatic about his exclusion. "We're certainly not in the business of producing food that is boring," said Mr Harrington, whose establishment, last year at least, served up roast partridge with lentils.

"It's never explained to us fully why one is in or why one is out. Perhaps they caught us on a bad day or a bad evening. We all like praise and a pat on the back from time to time. But while we'd always like to be in every guide, the comments from customers who say that they have enjoyed their experience with us is the most important thing. There are plenty of excellent restaurants around that have never been in the guide in the first place. While we're not complacent the fact is that we have increased our numbers every year."

Mr Harrington, whose staff, according to the 1999 guide, were relaxed and fully in control of proceedings, said that it was unfair to criticise the efforts he - and others omitted from the book - had made towards the cause of good food. "This country is overrun with theme pubs and brewery- backed groups which are serving two dishes for a fiver - in all fairness that is boring food. We're fighting against the tide to produce food that is not boring."

Mark Fairburn, manager of the similarly excluded Peacock Inn at Redmile, near Grantham, was unrepentant. "It's an unfair generalisation to say we're all boring," he said. "We offer a whole evening out rather than just a couple of hours and we're successful because we're recommended by word of mouth."

It is unlikely to be the last furore caused by this year's guide. It also claims that too many chefs are complacent and resting on their laurels while letting standards slip. It singles out "celebrity" chefs, who, it says, are enjoying the trappings of fame, often absent making television shows while their customers are served a substandard meal.

Off the menu

WHICH? refuses to identify the "dozen or so" establishments it excluded from this year's edition, saying it would be unfair to single them out for what may have been one bad day or because of a change of ownership. However, a brief comparison with last year's guide produces a list of several notable exclusions.

Healds Hall, Liversedge, West Yorks

Peacock Inn, Redmile, Leics

Crabwall Manor, Mollington, Cheshire

The Old Boot House, Shotley, Suffolk

White Horse Inn, Chilgrove, West Sussex

Horsted Palace Hotel, Pugin Restaurant, Uckfield, East Sussex

Thornbury Castle, Thornbury, Glos

William's Kitchen, Nailsworth, Glos

Le Petit Canard, Maiden Newton, Dorset

Three Horseshoes, Batcombe, Somerset

Bear & Ragged Staff, Cumnor, Oxfordshire