It's a dirty job but someone has to do it, says Charles Campion, author of `The Rough Guide to London Restaurants'
Favourite restaurants

Once upon a time (in those far off days when we went out to restaurants only on birthdays, anniversaries and very special occasions), you could legitimately have a favourite restaurant: somewhere where they knew you; somewhere you could have your favourite dish; somewhere you felt safe. Times have changed. As we approach the millennium, there are many people who eat out two or three times a week, and over-worked restaurant writers tend to go out five or six times a week - under this kind of pressure, insisting on only ever visiting a favourite establishment would very quickly lead to boring writing.

Golden rule

Rather than a favourite restaurant, I'd substitute a favourite principle - a golden rule for choosing restaurants: "When eating out, you cannot have anything better than exactly what you want." There it is, the fast track to dining well - and in a single sentence. What's more, it is self- evident. Think back to the last time you really fancied a curry: if a meddling fairy godmother had spirited you off to a posh fish restaurant, then however delicate the Dover sole, and however toothsome the lobster mayonnaise, you would still have been unhappy.

Least effective promotion

Each week several new restaurants open in London and, generally speaking, a slightly smaller number close down. Keeping tabs on all these comings and goings is a full-time job for any restaurant writer. Thankfully, pulling the wool over the eyes of the dining public is remarkably difficult: diners know a good thing when they see it and a steady stream of letters always follows the opening of any decent eatery. It also becomes remarkably simple to see which of these letters are genuine and which are not. The letter which ended with the sign-off, "I am always being teased by workmates about living in Surbiton, but this is a terrific restaurant and seeing it written about would do wonders for my street cred", not only rang true but led to a great dinner. On the other hand, an Orpington restaurateur actually printed a leaflet offering a free main course to any of his customers who wrote to me praising his food and service. He wasn't to know that the first letter opened would contain both a copy of the promotional flyer and the diner's judgement: "Poor service and poor quality food."

A dirty job - but someone has to do it

The most recent surveys estimate that there are about 12,500 restaurants in London, so writing a guide which features only 320 of them called for some hard decisions. When the Rough Guide project was in its infancy, several assumptions were made which went on to shape the book. First, ethnic cuisines were to get a fair crack of the whip. (There are 3,000 or so Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi restaurants in London, so you'll find 60 in the guide.) Second, as any Londoner will tell you, the capital is divided into a series of "villages". If you know your way around Chiswick you may not be at home in Holloway; or if Clapham is your patch Swiss Cottage may be a mystery. So the book is split up into five sections (Central, City & East, North, South and West) and within these there are more than 50 villages - it really is a local guide and it will enable you to eat well from Soho to Southall. Third, every restaurant has earned its place; none have been added simply to make up the numbers. Finally, and perhaps most important of all, each restaurant gets a full page review. There is nothing more frustrating than reading a brief notice, booking a table, turning up to eat and then finding that the establishment is nothing like you had imagined it would be. All too often this is because the harassed reviewer is trying to paint a picture in 60 words when 200 would barely suffice.

`The Rough Guide to London Restaurants', written and edited by Charles Campion, will be published in February. Charles Campion is a past winner of the Glenfiddich Restaurant Writer of the Year Award.


london restaurants

Where to go

London offers some of the most diverse dining in the world - there are an estimated 70 cuisines to choose from in the capital's restaurants. Here are a few options which may not immediately spring to mind.

Peruvian: Fina Estampa, 150 Tooley Street, SE1 (tel: 0171-403 1342).

Burmese: The Mandalay, 444 Edgware Road, W2 (tel: 0171-258 3696).

Ethiopian: Lalibela Ethiopian Restaurant, 137 Fortess Road, NW5 (tel: 0171-284 0600).

Czech & Slovak: The Restaurant at the Czech and Slovak National House, 74 West End Lane, NW6 (tel: 0171-372 5251).