About 10 years ago, when I applied for the job of AA hotel and restaurant inspector, I was asked to give a presentation on how to improve the Restaurant Guide. In truth, I'd never actually taken a close look at the book before - I was more familiar with the Good Food Guide. But it didn't take much study to detect the most obvious difference between the two - the number of hotel restaurants in the AA guide was far higher.
Neither did it take long to work out why this might be. After all, most of an AA inspector's work is concerned with assessing hotels, and while an entry in the restaurant guide requires no payment, appointment to the hotel scheme does.
It's hardly surprising, then, that the potential is there for a slant towards hotels. I thought this was a big problem for the guide's credibility and usefulness, and I said so at the interview.
At the time, David Young was the AA's chief inspector, and during the years I worked with him, his commitment to improving the integrity of the book was unstinting. Believe me, it wasn't an easy task.
It's far easier to give rosettes out than take them away, and one of the burdens of an AA inspector is that they are usually obliged to tell the hotelier their findings at the end of their visit. This can take nerve and, frankly, it's too much to believe that it never influences the decision.
When I was editor, Young and I argued strongly that the rosette rating should be revealed only on publication, thus taking the pressure off the inspectors. Disappointingly, we failed to get this agreed, but I'm still convinced it would contribute significantly to the guide's quality.
By the time I left the AA, just before the 2003 guide went to press (David Young left a short while later), I felt we had made some progress. Since then the proportion of hotels in the guide has risen, and I suspect any prospective inspector asked to analyse the guide would come to the same conclusion that I did.
There are too many hotel restaurants included for this guide to be a truly credible reflection of the best places to eat in the UK.
Over to you
Guidebooks: inspections or customer feedback?
Anthony Rosser, general manager, Lake Vyrnwy hotel, Llanwyddyn, Powys
"One-off inspections are probably a weak way of doing it, as you could get either a very good day or a very bad day. However, customer feedback forms are famously open to abuse. I'm beginning to question the merit of guidebooks for the business, but a balance between the two is probably the best way."
Debrah Dhugga, managing director, Tom's Companies
"Inspections keep you focused, but you should give 100% service all the time. Service shouldn't be judged on just one experience, but it does give a good guide for the traveller when choosing a destination. Customer feedback is important, and constructive comments allow you to get better every day."
Zahid Kasim, chief executive, Café Lazeez Group
"I'd prefer to go with the cusotmer feedback. From a reviewer or inspector viewpoint it's just too biased, whether positive or negative - it's just one opinion and it depends on the criteria that the reviewer has. A lot of reviews will be a more stable opinion that just that one or two individuals."
Patrice Guillom, general manager, Notting Hill Brasserie, London
"A guidebook is a starting point, but it's good to get your own view before you take on someone else's judgement. A review can be subjective, and it's important that those writing the guide can see the customer point of view. The best is the mystery guest, although sometimes they don't know anything about cooking."