This year The Good Food Guide celebrates its 60th anniversary and remains the oldest UK restaurant guide based solely on customer reviews. Kerstin Kühn looks back over six decades of the publication, and assesses its impact on the hospitality industry and British food
The fact that British food has come a long way over the past 60 years won't come as a shock to anyone, nor will it be a surprise to learn that back in the 1950s there was little appreciation of good food among the public.
"In the 1950s British food was really, really dire, almost inedible," says The Good Food Guide‘s consulting editor, Elizabeth Carter.
"Much was the result of the war and rationing. There were lots of nasty short cuts and fakeries, such as margarine masqueraded as butter, mock cream or whale meat - a lot of it was pretty grim."
Left-wing journalist, social historian, novelist and gourmet Raymond Postgate was so appalled at the state of food in Britain that he founded The Good Food Club, which he initially called the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Food. He recruited an army of volunteers to clandestinely visit and assess restaurants on the basis that "you can corrupt one man; you can't bribe an army."
Their collective reports were compiled to make The Good Food Guide, the first edition of which was published in 1951 and sold 5,000 copies. "The Good Food Club consists of men and women who are interested in promoting good eating, good drinking and good service in British hotels, inns and restaurants," the foreword to the inaugural guide states. "If this publication is a success, it is proposed to make it an annual."
Now celebrating its 60th birthday, it remains the oldest UK restaurant guide of its kind. "The guide has developed enormously over the years but it has never deviated from its core principles," says Carter. "There are no free meals, no advertising and all inspections are anonymous. We honour and respect our readers very much and they are incredibly loyal. We still have contributors from Postgate's era."
The number of contributors, which now comprises thousands of food lovers across Britain, has continually increased over the decades and along with it the number of establishments listed in the guide. While the first edition in 1951 included a mere 600 entries, in 1961 there were 750 restaurants, while in 1971 the number rose to 1,200 and since then it has levelled out at around 1,300 establishments.
Throughout the decades it has been the guide's main objective to raise awareness of good food, improve standards of hospitality in Britain and keep prices reasonable. But just how much has its influence actually impacted the industry?
"At the beginning there were no guidelines so The Good Food Guide had a great influence on the industry," recalls Richard Shepherd, who has been at Langan's Brasserie in London since 1977.
Rowley Leigh, chef-patron of Le Café Anglais, who opened Kensington Place in 1987, adds: "Postgate and his successor Christopher Driver were very powerful and hugely influential on the industry from the 1950s to the 1970s. I'd argue they were as significant as Elizabeth David. The Good Food Guide really was pioneering and because of it people became conscious about good food."
This is echoed by food writer Michael Raffael, who says the guide was instrumental in promoting good food in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. "The Good Food Guide helped to improve standards tremendously," he says. "It was used by so many people as the basis from which to choose a restaurant and really encouraged people to eat out."
the london problem
Right from the very first edition, The Good Food Guide considered hospitality in London differently to the rest of the country. The Problem Of London is a chapter in the 1951 guide, which discusses the fact that standards in the capital were so much higher than in the rest of the country, adding that entries "consist as far as possible of restaurants which are exceptional".
"After the war London was where everyone wanted to be, so that's where the customers were, which led to a concentration of great restaurants," says Carter. "But over the years, there has been major development outside London and some of the greatest British restaurants - the Hole in the Wall in Bath; the Boxtree Inn in Yorkshire; the Waterside Inn in Bray - have been outside the capital."
Raffael argues that The Good Food Guide helped to establish the restaurant industry outside London. "The Good Food Guide really encouraged the middle classes to become enthusiastic about food, and as a result, running a restaurant that was recommended by the guide became an acceptable middle class aspiration - like being a solicitor or doctor," he says.
Shaun Hill, chef-patron of the Walnut Tree near Abergavenny, says the guide reflected changes in society. "There was more money around so people started to eat out a lot more, which encouraged the opening of more restaurants," he says. This in turn persuaded amateur cooks to enter the industry, opening restaurants with rooms and country house hotels. In the late 1960s and early 1970s establishments such as Kenneth Bell's The Elizabeth in Oxford, Thornbury Castle in Gloucestershire and Francis Coulson at Sharrow Bay in the Lake District all opened their doors with enthusiastic amateur chefs.
enter the rivals
However, although a forerunner, The Good Food Guide has certainly been given a run for its money by rival publications over the years. In 1957 Egon Ronay launched his eponymous guide to British eateries, which was arguably its fiercest competitor. "Ronay was a lot more media-savvy and really knew how to draw attention to his guides by doing things like focusing on roadside dining or airport dining," says Hill. He adds that Ronay's knack for marketing was something The Good Food Guide lacked and possibly still lacks today: "The thing about The Good Food Guide is that it doesn't really draw that much attention to itself."
Then in 1974 came the return of the Michelin guide (it was previously published in the UK from 1911-1930), which awarded 25 restaurants in the UK and Ireland stars and changed the face of British dining. The focus shifted on to big name chefs - the Roux brothers, Nico Ladenis and George Perry-Smith protégé Joyce Molineux to name a few.
"Michelin certainly changed the axis," recalls Raffael. "The emphasis shifted from enthusiastic amateur cooks who had been inspired by The Good Food Guide, to French-trained chefs. Michelin recognised the shortcomings of the former and rewarded the skill of the latter, making the industry a lot more professional."
These days The Good Food Guide, although still one of the most established publications, is one of countless restaurant guides offering advice on where to eat out. "The Good Food Guide‘s influence has definitely diminished over the years," says Shepherd. "There are so many different guides now, the market has diversified so much and people make up their own mind about where they want to eat."
Moreover, in the current age of online reviews and bloggers, the guide, which has very little online presence, seems to be lagging behind the times. While an iPhone application of the guide is available, if you type "The Good Food Guide" into Google, its website (www.thegoodfoodguide.co.uk) is nowhere to be found among the search results. According to Hill the guide needs to become more technology savvy. "The likes of Harden's Restaurant Guide have come along and really stolen a lot of The Good Food Guide‘s thunder through their online presence," he says.
However, Carter argues that even without a major online presence, the guide is still "massively influential". "If you look at the online restaurant guides and bloggers, they are incredibly London-centric. As soon as you leave London the information gets scarcer and scarcer. The Good Food Guide still champions the restaurant industry in the provinces," she says.
What started out as a gentlemen's club of food lovers 60 years ago has developed into one of the most influential and best-loved guide books in the UK. Over the past six decades The Good Food Guide has undoubtedly shaped the industry, helped raise awareness of good food and with this raised standards across the board. What the future holds for the guide may well depend on how it embraces technology, but its legacy is unrivalled. "The Good Food Guide has always been a force for the good," concludes Hill. "It champions integrity and not just innovation. I hope that never changes." 1950s
the good food guide timeline
1950sPUBS AND EARLY STEAKHOUSES
There were very few restaurants and more pubs, although few served any food. Elizabeth David had a great influence on British cuisine but was virtually unknown to professionals. Among those chefs inspired by her writing was George Perry-Smith, who opened the Hole in the Wall in Bath in 1951. Restaurant fish chain Wheeler's was also very successful.
Typical restaurant dishes: Game soup; oeufs en cocotte; pâté maison; salmon mayonnaise; chicken Maryland; mixed grill; sherry trifle; crêpes Suzette; baba au rhum.
1960sThe rise of the restaurant
There was a restaurant boom, which was fuelled by the new-found wealth of Britain's middle and working classes and the end of rationing.
Italian restaurants in particular came to the fore, with the likes of Mario and Franco's Tiberia and the Trattoria Terrazza, which opened in Queen Street, London, in 1962, serving a choice of 15 pastas. Egon Ronay rose to fame.
Typical restaurant dishes: Avocado with prawns; smoked fish mousse; melon with port; trout with banana and almonds; steak Diane; coq au vin; chocolate rum mousse; zabaglione; omelette flambéd with rum, kirsch or Grand Marnier.
1970s The culinary greats
New stars appeared on the restaurant scene, including the Roux brothers, Raymond Blanc, Nico Ladenis and George Perry-Smith protégé Joyce Molineux and Anton Mosimann at the Dorchester.
Michelin returned to the UK in 1974, awarding 25 restaurants stars.
The first hint of regionalism appeared, with John Tovey at Miller Howe and Francis Coulson at Sharrow Bay, both in the Lake District.
Nouvelle cuisine, the antithesis of the heavy, flour-based sauces that predominated earlier cuisine, became popular while plate service replaced silver service.
Typical restaurant dishes: Mushrooms with Gruyère, garlic and white wine; smoked mackerel pâté; scampi provençale; duck à l'orange; chicken Kiev; beef en croûte; Black Forest gateau; chocolate roulade; crème brûlée.
The supply of ingredients improved with the birth of many small, local suppliers, who specialised in native produce. This produce filled the kitchens of the increasing band of "home-grown" chefs, including Alastair Little, Simon Hopkinson and Rowley Leigh and Shaun Hill, who were all influenced by Elizabeth David and Jane Grigson.
Typical restaurant dishes: Twice-cooked soufflé, gravad lax, watercress mousse, steak au poivre; mignons of Angus beef with Marsala and pink peppercorn sauce; steamed fillets of salmon and sole with a leek sauce; medallions of veal with a tarragon and saffron sauce; tarte fine aux pommes; lemon tart, summer pudding, passion fruit soufflé.
1990sThe rise of the pub and grand restaurants
British dishes became trendy but more than anything, the last decade of the 20th century ensured there was something for everyone. The Eagle in London's Clerkenwell opened in 1991, showing that you could be casual and still serve great food, while Sir Terence Conran pushed boundaries with his mega restaurants.
Typical restaurant dishes: Chicken boudin with fennel and saffron; marinated fillet of salmon with lime, ginger and coriander salsa; layered terrine of foie gras and chicken on a Californian Muscat jelly; Rack of lamb with red pepper and olive compote; blackened rib of beef with Cajun spices; sea bass steamed in a parcel with spring onions, ginger, shiitake mushrooms, lime juice and sesame oil; caramelised lemon tart.
2000sThe rise of Britain as a culinary destination
The last decade showed how far food in Britain has come in the past 60 years. London attracted celebrity chefs from across the globe and Heston Blumenthal's Fat Duck was recognised as one of the most iconic restaurants in the world. Television did much for the industry's profile and raised awareness about food among the public.
Typical restaurant dishes: Beetroot and black pudding salad with a poached egg; smoked haddock risotto with saffron and curry oil; slow-cooked pork cheeks with potato purée and grain mustard sauce; saddle of venison, red cabbage, beetroot beignets; wild sea bass with scallops, rocket, asparagus and a caviar beurre blanc; mackerel fillets with pine nuts, rosemary and apple sauce; vanilla pannacotta with Alphonse mango; warm chocolate fondant with pistachio ice-cream; passion fruit soufflé with passion fruit and banana sorbet.
Longest-serving restaurants in The Good Food Guide
The Connaught, London -58 years
Gravetye Manor, East Grinstead - 54 years
Porth Tocyn Hotel, Abersoch - 54 years
Sharrow Bay, Ullswater - 50 years
Le Gavroche, London - 41 years
Summer Isles Hotel, Achiltibuie - 41 years
The Capital, London - 40 years
Ubiquitous Chip, Glasgow - 39 years
The Druidstone, Broad Haven - 38 years
Plumber Manor, Sturminster Newton - 38 years
The Waterside Inn, Bray - 38 years
White Moss House, Grasmere - 38 years
Isle of Eriska, Eriska - 37 years
Airds Hotel, Port Appin - 35 years
Farlam Hall, Brampton - 34 years
Corse Lawn House, Corse Lawn - 33 years
Hambleton Hall, Hambleton - 32 years
The Pier Hotel, Harbourside Restaurant, Harwich - 32 years
Grafton Manor, Bromsgrove - 31 years
Magpie Café, Whitby - 31 years
RSJ, London - 30 years
The Seafood Restaurant, Padstow - 30 years
Sir Charles Napier, Chinnor - 30 years
The Dower House, The Royal Crescent, Bath - 30 years
Kalpna, Edinburgh - 29 years
Le Caprice, London - 29 years
Little Barwick House, Barwick - 29 years
Moss Nook, Manchester - 29 years
Ostlers Close, Cupar - 28 years
The Cellar, Anstruther - 27 years
Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons, Great Milton - 26 years
Clarke's, London - 26 years
Roade House, Roade - 26 years
Read's, Faversham - 25 years
The Three Chimneys, Isle of Skye - 25 years
Wallett's Court, St Margaret's-at-Cliffe - 25 years
GOOD FOOD GUIDE EDITORS
1951-1970 Raymond Postgate
1971-1982 Christopher Driver
1983-1989 Drew Smith
1990-1994 Tom Jaine
1995-2003 Jim Ainsworth
2004-2007 Andrew Turvil
2008-present Elizabeth Carter