Magazine article The Spectator

Provincial, Po-Faced Pooterish

Magazine article The Spectator

Provincial, Po-Faced Pooterish

Article excerpt

A SURVEY published last week claimed to prove that London was a better place for eating out in than Paris. When asked, the average business traveller said he'd rather get drunk in London than in Paris. But I suppose if you or I wanted to go out and sit surrounded by dandruff-covered, saggy-flannel-trousered men on expenses, entertaining each other with stories of how they had dinner in Paris last week and how it wasn't nearly as good as Quaglino's, then we might feel a little swelling of national pride. On the other hand, blowing yet another fanfare down the cornucopia of London's dinner tables is becoming embarrassing.

Just as Paris isn't representative of France, so London isn't representative of Britain. If the suits had been asked whether they'd rather eat out in Britain or in France, I imagine the answer would have been very different. As if to demonstrate how embarrassingly different Britain and France are in terms of eating out, a new edition of the Good Food Guide has just been published. It is exhaustively provincially comprehensive: no Copper Kettle or Betty's Bistro is too insignificant to get a gushing entry. The huge number of rustic doily-and-chocolate-surprise merchants make it virtually useless as an informed or informative directory. Its 600odd pages hide the fact that outside London and a few London-patronised hotels, public eating in this country still has a very long way to go.

The Good Food Guide is now in its forties - and it sounds like it. It has matured into a ponderous committee man with Home Counties good taste who takes all his pleasures in moderation with smug self-satisfaction. Restaurants and, more importantly, their customers, have become more sophisticated in the last decade, but the Good Food Guide has not kept up with contemporary eating habits and has remained a balding, boring pedant, sitting in the lounge with a comforting schooner of something dry, going through the wine list looking for half-bottle bargains.

This wouldn't be important if the Good Food Guide didn't matter, but food guides make a difference to the restaurant business and can either spur or hinder progress. They are trusted, and the Good Food Guide is particularly trusted because it claims that it is completely independent: it carries no advertising, makes no charge for inclusion and is not beholden to outside interests. Yet the Guide relies heavily on the public for its reviews and is thus beholden to every parsimonious retired solicitor with lavender notelets and a stamp.

Anyone who has received letters from the public will tell you that the sort of people who write letters are not, not to put too fine a point on it, the sort of people who write letters. They are not necessarily representative and they are rarely right. Ultimately, the proof of a guide is in the eating and, independent or not, the other guides are far more `succulent and tasty' (to use the Good Food Guide's favourite words). The Good Food Guide is owned and run by the Consumer Association, that group of bearded and booted worthies so beloved of afternoon don't-putyour-head-in-the-fuse-box-son television programmes.

The Guide treats entertainment, hospitality and gastronomy as if they were washing machines, lawnmowers and Teasmades. Culture, community and civilisation are all just a matter of clean avocado-coloured suites, adequate avocado portions and a warm welcome in the ingle-nook. The Guide is also deeply, lavishly and generously attached to adjectives and symbols. The adjectives are mostly robustly, toothsomely offered with a nestling garnish of inverted commas in a way which defies parody or constructive stylistic criticism. …

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