With its clear, crisp design, funky turquoise and aubergine graphics and generous use of white space, this year's Which? Good Food Guide is looking pretty good from the outside. Unfortunately, it's the inside that is exercising restaurateurs and former inspectors.
It's always risky for one publication to criticise another for inaccuracies and mistakes, not least because it opens itself up to the accusation of throwing stones in glass houses.
But the concerns raised about the guide this year are not about the occasional typographical or editing error rather, it is worries that the new inspection and reviewing regime put in place by Which? has, for whatever reason, led to omissions that have left many hard-working, high-performing restaurateurs confused, upset and afraid their businesses will be damaged.
Just as importantly, such omissions might, of course, also mean the public missing out on quality dining experiences.
One contentious omission is the Fox & Hounds in Goldsborough, North Yorkshire, run by chef-proprietor Jason Davies. The 30-seat restaurant got a 5/10 rating last year and was named Yorkshire Newcomer of the Year.
"What they told us was that they had not received enough reader responses," he said. "That could be possible, because we are only very small, but after being voted best newcomer last year you would have thought we would have been visited by an inspector."
Another completely at a loss is Kenny Atkinson, executive head chef at St Martin's on the Isle hotel in the Scilly Isles. Atkinson's omission is puzzling, not just because last year he earned a special commendation, but because the hotel's restaurant is bizarrely still listed as a main entry on the current edition's map of the island.
"To get 6/10 one year and then be told the next an inspector thinks you are not worthy of being inspected is very hard," he said. "We have been nominated as a Michelin rising star, we have a 95% customer satisfaction rating. This could put people off visiting not just us but the island itself."
Graham Garrett, chef-proprietor of the 32-seat West House in Biddenden, Kent, said he was "gobsmacked" to find himself omitted after scoring 5/10 last time. "We had previously had a high score in Harden's and we have held a Michelin star since 2004," said Garrett. "I called the editor, Elizabeth Carter, and if I left one message I must have left 20, but no one called me back."
Nick Evenden, proprietor of Soufflé in Maidstone, Kent, got a 2/10 last time around and, after seven years in the guide, described being dropped as "very hurtful". "We have not had any feedback," he said. "We were expecting another point at least this year, so it is devastating."
Sour grapes or genuine grievances? The fact that Which?'s inspection process is confidential and independent - clearly one of its strongest selling points - makes it virtually impossible to know for sure.
Former inspector Catharine Steele-Kroon, who has been instrumental in highlighting what she sees as discrepancies in this year's guide, believes cost-cutting and changes to the editorial and inspection regime have led to a slipping of standards. "Such omissions are very damaging to a chef's morale and can do great damage to his business as well," she said.
But Angela Newton, head of book publishing at Which?, while sympathetic about individual omissions, strongly denied there has been any reduction in standards. There may have been changes to the inspection process, such as requiring inspectors to write reviews as well as do inspections, but the vast majority of the inspection team is unchanged, she stressed.
And, with some 300 new reader-recommended entries, it was inevitable that competition for inclusion was going to be even more fierce than usual, she pointed out, although the Fox & Hounds omission is something the guide is looking to rectify.
"We have said we will consider publishing something online. If it passes the inspection, we will include it," Newton said. "But we are not conceding that we have made a mistake.
"It is understandable that some restaurateurs are upset, but it is based on reader feedback. A restaurant could get a 9/10 this year, but if it did not get any reader feedback, then it's going to struggle to get in again."
Restaurateurs like Graham Garrett, however, remain unconvinced. "To be honest, when we got the Michelin star it tripled our business," he said. "The Good Food Guide does bring in a few customers, but it is no longer the be-all and end‑all."
By Nic Paton
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