The London Restaurant Awards return this week after a three-year gap, but what role do they serve in an industry laden with gongs? Tom Vaughan discovers whether the glittering backdrop, the hired celebrities and the china plate trophies make for a valuable contribution to UK dining out
Consider this: in 2007, the US market was treated to 705 new movie releases, the UK to about 26,000 new music albums, and the London restaurant scene to 158 new openings.
It makes sense to run a film awards night every year, known as the Oscars, or the Brit Awards for music. But celebrating the London restaurant scene every year could get a tad repetitive.
"The trouble with running awards like this is that the list never really changes, and personally I find that boring," says Time Out restaurant critic Guy Dimond.
This could apply to all dining-out award events targeted at consumers, however, including his publication's own. And such concerns haven't halted the re-emergence of the London Restaurant Awards, back on 1 September, after a three-year break.
"These are not just trophies handed out by trade organisations or journals in bed with the industry," says restaurant reviewer for the Independent on Sunday Terry Durack, in the newspaper's blog. "They're real awards chosen by Britain's best-known restaurant critics, people who eat in London restaurants on an almost daily basis."
The only thing is, he's one of seven national newspaper restaurant critics who have been called in to judge the reborn London prize.
So, you might ask, what is the point of this event? For three of the past four years the awards has run, the Best French Restaurant award has been mopped up by Le Gavroche, Restaurant Gordon Ramsay and The Square - a group of restaurants holding seven Michelin stars between them. These are decisions that are hardly going to add to the sum of public knowledge.
"Nobody seems to be sticking their neck out," says Richard Harden, co-author of the Harden's restaurant guides. "Nobody is seeking to make any interesting judgement, to say, ‘This is the way it's going,' or ‘This is the chef of the future.'"
Gaining an objective view of the awards is tricky. The Time Out Awards, the Harden's-run Rémy Martin Awards, or even Caterer‘s own Cateys, could potentially be accused of harbouring a lopsided, so-called rival's view of the London Restaurant Awards.
Likewise, chefs honoured at the event are hardly going to bite the hand that feeds them free publicity and a glitzy night out. The key issue surrounding the awards, though, remains do they serve or harm the industry? And for that it's worth gaining a little perspective.
The awards were born in 1996, the brainchild of entrepreneur Bruce Burgess. Initially voted for by the public, and presented by the far-from-camera-shy Burgess, they were run in conjunction with the London Evening News.
In 1998, the erratic nature of the public vote meant the organisers switched to a panel of restaurant critics, a move that, says the awards' managing director Amanda Biddle, considerably lifted the event's profile.
After making their way on screen with ITV, the awards picked up major sponsorship with Moët & Chandon in 2000 and 2001, during which time they gathered further publicity, with high-profile presenters such as ex-Blue Peter star Sarah Greene, ITV news reporter Mary Nightingale and, most famously, Michael Barrymore - whose inebriated, rambling presenting style gained notoriety. And glitzy staging in five-star London hotels meant the awards gathered a limelight alien to other industry events.
But, after Moët had its budgets slashed in the post-9/11 economic climate, the awards missed a year in 2002. Returning in 2003 under the sponsorship of sherry makers Tio Pepe, the event lasted a further three years before sponsorship was again pulled.
Founder Burgess relocated to America, where he is now the director of such myth-chasing documentaries as Bigfootville and The Bermuda Triangle Solved. Now, after three years of hard work by the organisers, the awards have returned with commercial property investment company aAIM as sponsors.
Over its first nine years, the event rewarded a whole host of London stars - from widely acclaimed sites like Chez Bruce, the Square, and St John to less-celebrated establishments such as the Anglesea Arms, St John Bread and Wine, and the Painted Heron.
Some might argue the event helped galvanise the London restaurant scene in its formative years, too. "We'd never have thought 10 years ago we'd be in the place we are now, with so much variety and such a high standard," says Giorgio Locatelli, chef-patron of Locanda Locatelli and recipient of Outstanding London Chef at the 2001 London Restaurant Awards.
"Everybody feels like they achieve in their own little kitchen, but the awards celebrated our overall achievement."
Accusations that the event is unnecessarily glitzy are disputed by the organisers. "Yes, in terms of presenters we have to appeal to the TV audience, or it wouldn't be a good TV programme," says Biddle.
But asked what distinguishes the event among a sea of industry awards dos, it's this aspect of glamour that is the cited raison d'être. "Ours is different in so many ways. We have a higher profile because of the TV coverage," she says. "We've upped our game this year and got Jack Dee presenting, and in the past have had great up-and-coming acts like Amy Winehouse and Lisa Stansfield.
"We have all the celebrity elements to it and that makes us known to more people, which can only be good for chefs and restaurants."
No one can deny the ability of the London Restaurant Awards to throw a party. Rather, it is the worth of the awards themselves that is often questioned, with the oft-cited criticism that they merely celebrate pre-eminent restaurants.
"I don't begrudge the winners their moment in the sun, and they are being rewarded for being, obviously, very good at their game," says Harden. "The only question is why the general public should be interested in the conclusions - which are, naturally, hyped up by the PR as being startling or interesting - when the field is such that the winners will generally be establishments which are well-known and appreciated already."
As Harden says, you can't begrudge the restaurateurs and chefs honoured at the awards. Any publicity is good publicity, as the maxim goes. For someone like Tom Pemberton, whose 10-month-old restaurant Hereford Road, in Notting Hill, is nominated in the Best Local Restaurant category, the award is a chance to further establish the reputation of his fledgling site.
"Any time you win an award in any restaurant, it's good for you. These things are accumulative, and winning awards as you progress is great," he says. "All these award ceremonies give the restaurant industry a bit of a lift now and then. Some people make a lot of money out of restaurants, but a lot don't, so being honoured provides a huge lift."
This aspect of the awards is unquestionably helpful to the industry. But should they be doing more? The Nottingham Restaurant Awards is a good comparison. Currently in its seventh year, the event highlights worthy restaurants and pubs in the local area, helping these more provincial sites market themselves, often with great success. For example, the winner of the Best Pub Food award, Larwood & Voce, saw cover numbers rocket from 800 to 1,200 a week following the awards.
The aim, says Jocelyn Platt, director of the event's organiser Big Table PR, is not only to help market Nottingham restaurants, but to help the industry itself.
In addition to restaurants, the awards celebrate the best waiter and best young chef from the area. This year the winner of the chef award was selected by Michelin-starred chefs Sat Bains, Daniel Clifford and Paul Cunningham, and won a stage at each of their restaurants.
"We're really keen this doesn't become a pat on the back and an exercise in ‘aren't we marvellous' by Nottingham restaurants," says Platt.
This less glamorous but arguably more worthy act of celebrating the grassroots, is conspicuously missing from the London Restaurant Awards. In fact, the awards are much nearer to the "aren't we marvellous" style of event, with many categories filled with already pre-eminent restaurants.
Take the Award of Excellence (Restaurants for Special Occasions) category - the nominees are the Gallery @ Sketch, Le Gavroche, The Greenhouse, Maze, Scotts and the Wolseley - a list of restaurants so celebrated and successful that choosing between them for the sake of an award seems a trifle like splitting hairs for the sake of it.
Or the Best French Restaurant award category, whose nominees are L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon, Arbutus, Galvin Bistrot De Luxe, Le Gavroche, the Greenhouse and Hibiscus - restaurants with sky-high reputations as it currently stands.
Chair of the judges and Evening Standard restaurant critic, Fay Maschler, says that, more so than in previous years, the awards are trying to shine a light on the less obvious venues.
"We're trying to home in on places that people like and can afford to go. We're more interested this year, given the financial climate, in highlighting worthy value-for-money sites."
These places are certainly dotted around the nominees. Restaurants such as Magdalen, Great Queen Street, Urban Turban and Hereford Road are stand-out examples, while there is a separate category for restaurants with a price bracket of under £60 for a meal for two. Aside from this, Maschler insists it is important to reward and list the established sites as well as the up-and-coming.
At least this year there's a prize recognising restaurants outside London too. It doesn't quite fit the title "London Restaurant Awards", but, nonetheless, many in the industry are accused of being too London-centric and this is an answer for them. Venues from around the UK will be nominated for the Top 10 Outside London award for the first time. Yorkshire fills eight of the 38 nominations so far, the most for any region, including Anthony Flinn's Michelin-starred restaurant.
Ultimately, some will see these prizes merely an exercise in self-congratulation. But even if the only new thing the awards can offer is glamour, that beats poring over figures, devising daily menus, or slaving over a hot stove, for one night at least.