Cookbook Review - Good Food Guide 2008 - Cooking Index
Author: Edited by Elizabeth Carter
Like any food guide that ranks restaurants on a scale of 1 to 10, the publication of the Good Food Guide 2008 was always likely to spark a few arguments. Restaurants are a very personal thing and since Raymond Postgate stated publishing the Good Food Guide series in 1951 there will have been readers quibbling about the ratings.
This year's edition, for the first time, ranks restaurants with the very top ratings (from 9 out of 10 down to 6 out of 10 - no restaurant gets a perfect 10) within their rating group, rather than just lumping them together. As a result there is now a Good Food Guide Top 40 of the best restaurants in Britain, with the top 15 looking like this:
This produces a good talking point and, at the very top at least, I can't complain about the order. As someone who has used the GFG for many years and rely on it to point me in the right direction whenever I visit somewhere I know little about (gastronomically at least), I look forward to its publication each year. I still think it is the best of the food guides to Britain's restaurants because of its depth of coverage and because it is largely put together from the recommendations of readers, who can eat an awful lot of meals by comparison with the small number of inspectors employed by some guides.
Inevitably some things rankle. This year's edition is presented by county, rather than an alphabetical listing of places which was used in previous editions. London is broken down into areas (Central, North, South, East, West) which are then subdivided (eg Soho, Highgate) with the boundaries somewhat muddled. I find this infuriating as, in my opinion at least, it makes the guide harder to use. There are also short question and answer columns with various chefs, which I would either like to see at much greater length or dropped altogether as in the current format they don't add much to the edition. There is also a short, supposedly snappy one line description of each restaurant and you can tell that the editorial team struggled to put these together as they vary from plodding to trite.
The main concern I have with the guide is that there is undoubtely a bias in the ratings. It is inevitable that London, as one of the world's great capitals, will attract a large number of highly skilled chefs. And it is inevitable that a chef who sets up in some small village in Norfolk or Lincolnshire is going to find it harder to recruit good quality kitchen and front of house staff. However this should not be reflected in the ratings. There are several instances where a London restaurant gets a rating of 2 but, should you transport it to the middle of nowehere, I am pretty sure it would get a 4. The ratings should be entirely about the quality of the food and should not make concessions for location.
My other concern is that there seems to be a bias against, for want of a better description, 'ethnic' cuisines. The very best Chinese and Indian restaurants get, in my opinion, substantially lower ratings than their cooking deserves. How Royal China, which has even been able to open a dim sum restaurant in Singapore such is its fame, only gets a 3 is beyond me. How they fail to review Royal China Club, its upmarket sister restaurant, is another mystery (it has been well reviewed in the British press). London Indian restaurants like Ragam and Salaam Namaste, both of which have been well reviewed this year and are notable for low prices and great cooking (as well as poor decor!) simply don't appear. And I am surprised the New Tayyab, one of the most cited Indian restaurants on forums like egullet, does not even make the round up section. The reason for this may be that there is a bias in the readership (or rather, in those who have the time to write in to the publishers) which means that these restaurants are simply not looked at.
Re-reading the above paragraphs, I am perhaps being a bit harsh on the Good Food Guide 2008. It has kept me enthralled for the past few days and given me lots of ideas about places I want to go and try. I find it hard to believe that anyone who is not interested in food and is spending any time in Britain would not have a copy of the guide on their bookshelf. But as with all things indispensible, there are improvements that would make it even better.
Which? Consumer Guides, 2007, £16.99, 600 pages (paperback)
Joe Saumarez Smith (28 September 2007)