There are shadowy figures in the hotel lobby, whispered conversations in the restaurant and the kitchen is full of nervous chefs. Yes, that's right, the food inspectors are in.
Whereas national newspaper restaurant critics are usually well-known personalities, some of whom seem unable to eat dinner outside Greater London, the men and women who inspect for the guidebooks are more difficult to spot.
There is a certain cynicism within the industry about the skills and motivation behind these publications. Are they fair? Are they influenced by money and fame? Do they have any real effect on trade? Well, we decided to find out.
Guides have not had a great press over the past few years. Earlier this month, the RAC said it planned to close its hotel inspection and accreditation business after the publication of its 2006 guide, and in April the Consumers' Association announced that it would no longer be publishing its Which? Pub Guide and Which? Guide to Good Hotels annually.
Two years ago the tragic suicide of chef Bernard Loiseau was linked by the media to his restaurant being downgraded in the Gaut-Millau guide. More recently, Michelin's Benelux edition had to be pulped, following the discovery that one establishment had been awarded a Bib Gourmand despite the fact that it had not yet opened.
Editor resigned And in 2002 Simon Wright resigned as editor of the AA Restaurant Guide after the company's then managing director, Roger Wood, overruled the guide's professional inspectors and refused to allow the London restaurant Pétrus to be upgraded.
But have these circumstances shaken the consumer's faith in guides? They may have had an influence on the 57% of respondents in our research that do not use guides, but what does the industry believe?
"I don't think these events have had a great impact on consumers," says Mark Chan, owner of Ecapital and Oqo restaurants in London. "The reputations of the big-name guides such as Michelin, Zagat and AA remain largely intact and we see people in the restaurant reading them. But it's difficult to gauge how useful a listing is to business - a positive review from local publications such as the Evening Standard or Time Out mean more to us. I also worry that guide inspectors do not have a great experience of cuisines that are not French-centred."
Christian Sandefelt, chef-proprietor of new Chelsea restaurant Deep, agrees that the value of a mention in a guide is hard to quantify: "There are so many guides out there now, but the one exception is probably Michelin because attaining a star rating generates a lot of media attention and attendant business. However, I do think it is useful to have a listing if you want to boost tourist trade. But I've had some bad experiences with guidebooks asking for money and in my experience the smaller the publication, the more corrupt they appear to be."
Conspiracy theory? People on both sides of the industry are reluctant to go on record with their suspicions. So is there a culinary conspiracy out there? Or is it just the usual tensions between the reviewer and the reviewed?
Who better to ask than the man who stood down on a point of principle, the ex-editor of the AA Restaurant Guide, Simon Wright. He does not see the guide's world being dominated by a secretive cabal of French food snobs, but he does feel that the industry suffers from a lack of transparency.
"The important thing to realise about guides is that they all have their limitations, I just think the industry could be more open about what those limitations are," he says. The guidebook trade is split largely into two camps, the consumer survey publications (Harden's and Zagat) and those that use some form of inspection (the rest). It's those inspection-based guides that Wright believes should be more honest about how their assessments are carried out.
"It is difficult to get exact details about how inspectors carry out their duties in many of the guides and this leads to suspicion from proprietors," Wright says, "For example, I would like to know how often Michelin carries out inspections for each year's guide - and how are these places chosen for inspection?"
It does appear that guides that use inspections are reluctant to reveal the exact process and level of resources involved. Why? These publications want to retain a commercial advantage over their rivals and direct comparisons over how inspections are implemented could affect this. For example, would you rather trust the opinions of a company employing 30 full-time professional inspectors or a firm that sends an editorial assistant and her boyfriend to do the job? Wright would argue that either approach has its place, as long as the catering industry and the consumer know that's how reviews are arrived at.
And the process of reviewing - particularly reviewing hotels - is expensive. Regular anonymous visits and a team of professional inspectors don't come cheap, so it's no surprise that the hotel guides we list here all charge for inclusion.
Pressure on resources may also explain why out of the 1,800 entries in the AA Restaurant Guide, hotel-restaurants account for 1,151 (hotels have to pay for inclusion in its sister publication the AA Hotel Guide). This compares with the Good Food Guide, which lists about 200 hotel-restaurants within its 1,000 main entries. The leading guides are also responding to a changing, and more competitive, marketplace.
As our research shows, the internet appears to have more influence than guidebooks on choosing a hotel or restaurant (5% compared to 4%), but guides also have a presence on the web and Jim Ainsworth, ex-editor of the Good Food Guide, does not think the days of the classic guidebook are numbered yet.
"They are a necessary evil. People need their help to find good places, but it is important to note the difference between them," he says.
"The Good Food Guide, for example, has inspectors, but they are not full-time professionals. The consumer survey guides such as Zagat rely on Joe Public - who can often mistake a good atmosphere, particularly if a celebrity is nearby, with good food. The established guides have to evolve because they are not just addressing a small group of middle-class people as they once were. For example, Michelin is mainly symbol-based and there is not much description about the venue - not very helpful to a modern reader hoping to use the guide to locate a restaurant for a special occasion."
Michelin has the honour of being the guide that is most often praised and criticised, but its editor, Derek Bulmer, is unapologetic about the main focus of the guide. "We understand chefs' pressure to achieve excellence, but that's a pressure they put on themselves; we make the guidebook for the readers." He also disputes Wright's points about not being transparent enough.
"I think we are open: we publish written criteria for anyone to read, we obviously keep the identity of our inspectors as secret as possible because visiting anonymously is a vital part of the inspection." He also believes that criticism that the guide is too French-centric is old news. "Britain has a great diversity of cooking and that is reflected in the guide. The French guide may concentrate on French food, but that's what most restaurants in that country serve."
Bulmer does accept, however, that some changes need to be made. "We have realised the venue descriptions have been a little brief and we are going to remedy that in the future. For example, the new New York guide will take it further than our current publications. The Red Guide will not fundamentally change; it will be subtly improved, but other publications will be developed from it, such as the current Eating Out in Pubs Guide which will appeal to a different demographic and develop the brand."
This need to appeal to a wide audience is perhaps one reason why the most popular guide in our research is The Good Food Guide. Editor Andrew Turvil believes it's because of its mix of features and emphasis on the readers' needs. "We are consumer-focused and alongside the restaurant reviews we have feature articles on food and restaurant-related issues - some of them on important issues for the industry, others campaigning for higher standards."
The proliferation of guides and information on the internet make it more important that the leading brands continue to offer confidence to both the consumer and those in the hospitality industry. And more openness and understanding about the processes involved in reviewing establishments would help in relieving that tension when an inspector calls.
What consumers think
We asked 1,000 adults…
Which one of the following would most influence your choice of hotel or restaurant?
- A guidebook: 4%
- The internet: 5%
- Newspaper review: 7%
- Recommendation: 78%
- None of these: 4%
- Don't know: 1%
How often do you refer to guidebooks when chosing a UK restaurant or hotel?
- Regularly: 5%
- Occasionally: 35%
- Never: 57%
- Never go to restaurants or hotels: 3%
Which of these guides, if any, would you consult before choosing a restaurant of hotel?
- Michelin: 20%
- AA: 30%
- Good Food Guide: 44%
- Harden's: 6%
- Time Out: 19%
- Zagat: 5%
- Mr & Mrs Smith: 6%
- RAC: 24%
- Something else: 10%
- None/don't go: 26%
- Don't know: 12%
How accurate do you think these types of guidebooks are?
- Very accurate: 9%
- Fairly accurate: 62%
- Not very accurate: 8%
- Not at all accurate: 3%
- Don't know: 18%