Prawn cocktail and spag bol? Lovely, dear!

Critics have slammed the new 'Good Food Guide' as a play-safe manual for middle-class bores like TV's Terry and June, reports Milly Jenkins
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The Independent Online
"Provincial, po-faced and Pooterish" is how one critic has described the 1997 edition of The Good Food Guide. Ever since its launch, The Good Food Guide has been regarded as the British bible for discerning diners, but now, on its 45th anniversary, it is accused of being out of date and out of touch.

In last week's Spectator, the critic A A Gill says that it has become "virtually useless as an informed or informative directory" and that it "treats entertainment, hospitality and gastronomy as if they were washing- machines, lawnmowers and Teasmades".

According to Gill, it is only fit for "Terrys and Junes" - "middle-aged, middle-brow, middle-income" people. The kind of people who live "a comfortable, neat, supercilious life without ever being adventurous enough or inquisitive enough to discover the point of living".

Jim Ainsworth, the guide's editor, says he's mystified by the attack. "I can't believe anyone could take this seriously. He's just foaming at the mouth, full of prejudices. It's snooty and senseless."

Gill's main bone of contention is that the guide relies too heavily on the opinions and reviews of "real" people. It is compiled using of thousands of letters sent in each year by professional and amateur critics. Jim Ainsworth edits them, sometimes sending professional inspectors to restaurants about which readers strongly disagree.

Gill wonders if anyone cares about the opinion of "every parsimonious retired solicitor with lavender notelets and a stamp"? But for Ainsworth, this tradition of consulting the public is something to be proud of.

"It's one of the principles on which the guide is founded," he says. "I can't see what's wrong with it. Everybody who eats in a restaurant and pays good money for it has a right to a view and a right to express that view. Gill denigrates consumers, but what's wrong with consumers?"

The food writer Emily Green has also written a stinging attack on The Good Food Guide for the New Statesman. Although she deplores the snobbery of Gill's views, she says he has a point: "It's a fraud in that they purport that the guide is for the readers, by the readers. But it's very questionable how they gather their information. I don't believe that in their postbag lands a uniform balanced level of criticism. It's the print equivalent of a radio phone-in, and that doesn't make it a valid guide."

Fay Maschler, the London Evening Standard's food writer, also joins the attack. "The world has changed but The Good Food Guide has stayed the same. It's stuck in a middle-aged and middle-class time warp."

She thinks its coverage of London restaurants is particularly weak, because "the type of people who go to Mezzos and Quaglinos aren't the kind to sit down and write an earnest little note to The Good Food Guide".

The guide was founded in 1952 by Raymond Postgate, a journalist and historian who made it his mission to raise restaurant standards by highlighting the worst of British cooking while publicising the few good restaurants that did exist.

As Ainsworth says: "Those were the days when if you got real egg instead of powdered egg you were doing very well. People were emerging from wartime scarcity, just before Elizabeth David and that whole revolution. The basic premise was, 'Food in Britain is terrible, but here are a few good places'."

Derek Cooper, presenter of the BBC Radio 4's The Food Programme, was a friend of Postgate, who died in 1971. He says the guide embodies Postgate's "hatred of pretentiousness".

"I still regard it as the best guide to eating out in Britain. It's the perfect example of a co-operative work. An enormous number of knowledgeable people contribute to it. The great thing about it is that it's still incorruptible. It's the one guide you can't buy your way into."

Postgate's stern criticisms of British restaurants soon became the hallmark of The Good Food Guide. His successors continued to bellyache about low standards and high prices, continually complaining about meals that are "mostly cooked with contempt by people whose minds are mainly on the cash register".

But in this year's edition, Jim Ainsworth is positively upbeat about British cooking, writing that "there has never been a more exciting time to eat out". He thinks it's time we started celebrating the fact that good cooking has finally arrived at our shores. The antis, however, say the guide has lost its critical edge. According to Fay Maschler: "They used to be much more rigorous about what they put in and what they left out, but now they make everything look nice."

A A Gill says it's "embarrassing" to say that British restaurants are now on a par with those in France. Ainsworth wearily responds that "it seems ratherLuddite and churlish to say we're not as good as France. If we believe that, we never will be".

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