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What's the future for restaurant guides?

05 August 2020 by

Covid-19 hasn't put a stop to restaurants, and it hasn't halted the guides either. Despite the current hiatus the AA, Harden's, The Good Food Guide and Michelin all argue that a guide is still an essential authority for diners on where to go out to eat, in whatever form that may take.

As we cautiously attempt to return to some version of normality, the ongoing global Covid-19 pandemic throws a long shadow of uncertainty over all of our plans. Despite that, over the past five months, the hospitality industry has proved how adaptable, nimble and resilient it truly is, but the hard truth is that no one yet knows the full extent of the long-term impact on the UK's restaurant scene.

Those most seriously affected are, of course, the restaurateurs themselves and those that work directly for them, but the current circumstances also make things very tricky for the editors and publishers of restaurant guides.

While the UK restaurant scene of the last decade or so has been increasingly dynamic and changing, it has still been possible for Michelin, The Good Food Guide, the AA and Harden's to produce printed guides that are accurate, reliable and useful for their year's lifespan, especially when supported by regularly updated websites. In the post-lockdown world, where an increasing number of restaurants have announced that they will not reopen or are radically changing their offering, the idea of being able to capture the increasingly amorphous entity that is the British restaurant scene in a printed guide seems to be an ever-receding probability.

An inspector calls?

Michelin has continued to be active in print in 2020, publishing its guide to the Nordic Countries in February and a Main Cities of Europe guide in June. However, in a video address to the industry, posted on YouTube in April, Michelin Guides international director Gwendal Poullennec committed to a ‘digital-first' strategy, saying that "we will make the most of our websites and digital facilities".

He added that, "an unprecedented commitment by our inspectors" would mean that "a Michelin star and all our award distinctions will mean the same in 2021 as they always have". Exactly how Michelin will ensure that will be the case isn't clear, and the guide declined an invitation to be interviewed for this article, stating that "final details are being ironed out".

It therefore remains uncertain if there will be a printed Great Britain and Ireland guide for 2021 or if the annual Michelin new stars announcement event, currently scheduled for 19 October at London's Camden Roundhouse, will happen. With indoor events with social distancing currently planned to open from 15 August, it is theoretically possible it could go ahead with the general public in attendance at what is planned to be a newly modernised ‘rock star' event, as revealed in February.

The situation regarding the other major restaurant guides is more transparent. There will be no printed AA restaurant guide or awards ceremony this year, and the same is true of The Good Food Guide. However, Harden's is currently considering publishing a factual update of its London guide: "The most important thing would be the information update, taking out the closures and putting in details of those restaurants currently open or reopened and updated details about their offerings," says the guide's co-founder Peter Harden.

The Good Food Guide consultant editor Elizabeth Carter takes a similar view, seeing the guide as providing a public service in the post-lockdown period. "At the moment, we're just looking to be very supportive of restaurants. There are tough times ahead and we're informing our readers that something's open, that they're doing takeaway or various other things. Some of them are opening on very reduced hours. It's just trying to get people to check websites and also to book."

The AA has shown its support for the industry by launching the AA Covid Confident assessment scheme, designed to help support the hospitality industry in re-establishing and rebuilding consumer confidence. The free scheme is open to all restaurants, not just those featured in the guide, and has so far seen 5,000 establishments sign up, with 2,200 having already met the requirements to be accredited. Restaurants are provided with a certificate to display in their premises, a logo to use on their website and are also featured on the AA's RatedTrips.com website.

Following an internal risk assessment, which included ensuring all staff are healthy and that government guidelines are followed, the guide will resume inspections from August, but managing director at AA Media Simon Numphud says they will be carried out in a way that's mindful of the new climate in which restaurants are operating.

"We'll take a pragmatic and objective view together with the current context, which in many cases means there will be fewer staff on at any one time, social distancing measures, hygiene and cleanliness measures and, ultimately, less guest interaction.

"Restaurants will change. You might see ancillary items cut out to reduce serving time and there might be simpler menus, but great food still uses great seasonal ingredients with an understanding of flavours that work and a knowledge of how to balance dishes, so in that respect there won't be much of a change to our approach. We think they can still be assessed in the normal way."

Even if the restaurant has changed, the score still says a lot about the skill of the chef

Harden's has made the decision not to run a full survey of its reporters this year, but might run a snap poll in late summer or early autumn to help inform the London update, should it appear. In an email to contributors, Harden explained his reasons, which included that "pre-March experiences may prove only a basic guide to those post-July," adding: "Some of the most famous names in the business have already announced the closure or significant reformatting of their restaurants" and that "those restaurants that are reopening are not really the same businesses as six months ago".

Settling a score

Those factors won't prevent the AA from announcing new rosette awards in September and January as usual. "When we stopped inspecting in March, we'd already finalised some of our decisions for September. We don't think it's fair to make them wait even longer because of what's happened. We will top up with any visits we get to do from August onwards that might go into that mix.

"It might be that we push back our announcement, which will only be online this year. We won't have the awards event either, so that gives us a little more time, depending on how many visits we're prioritising with that impact."

The Good Food Guide will run with existing scores for restaurants until Christmas, when a decision about what the future holds will be made. The scores will stand even if a restaurant has changed its offering. For example, Nathan Outlaw's flagship restaurant in Port Isaac in Cornwall, which has abandoned tasting menus for a more affordable à la carte and has been renamed Outlaw's New Road, will retain its score of 10.

"For the time being we are going to run the existing entries because this is a 2020 guide. Even if the restaurant has changed, the score still says a lot about the skill of the chef. It's still very useful information," says Carter, who has continued to receive reports from The Good Food Guide readers throughout lockdown of meals taken early in the year and has had a flurry of post-4 July reports.

"Nobody's being critical. They're all saying, ‘I'm back in a restaurant, it's wonderful'. It's been very heartening reading. The reports are a very valuable resource because they do actually refer to lockdown; they're talking about masks and sanitisers but everybody's taking it in their stride. They build up a picture of each restaurant right at the beginning of this new era. How we will reflect that in the next guide I don't know yet, because this is new territory for all of us; we're inching forward."

Paper dreams

With the repercussions of the pandemic making the UK restaurant scene more volatile than in any time in recent history, an easily updatable online presence is more important than ever. Access to thegoodfoodguide.co.uk will soon be free to all (the full site is currently only available to subscribers or MyWaitrose members), the AA has recently launched its more user-friendly Rated Trips site and the Harden Guide's app updates in real time.

However, all the guides we spoke to are committed to publishing print guides as soon as is practicable. "The book is more a statement of authority rather than where the circulation is," says Harden. "There's no disputing the fact that the eyeballs have moved online for the most part, but we keep the books because it makes us seem more authoritative. The fact that we are prepared to invest money producing all of these pieces of paper smeared with ink shows that we've got editorial teams in place and that we are prepared to do the copy-checking and the spell-checking and all the rest of it."

We verify everything. We are the voice of authority

Carter says she also sees a future for the printed guide, even in post-Covid times. "People love the print guide; our sales have gone up and up and up. We are the best-selling guide by a long way. The Waitrose connection is a massive help. We are trusted. We research, write and redo the guide every year; it's up to date in many ways that some websites aren't. We verify everything. We are the voice of authority. Next year will be our 70th anniversary, so hopefully we'll have a book out by then. It will happen, but we've got a bit of a hump to get over with Covid before we can really plan."

Harden admits that 2020 has been a disastrous year and that although the guide will continue, it is time to look for additional revenue streams. "I have mailing lists of 40,000 foodies and I've been thinking for quite a long time about how can I deepen my relationship with them," he says. "I'm going to create a new tier of membership called Harden's Platinum, and I'm looking to create a virtual club, which will be paid for.

"It will be a subscription that allows diners to access various exclusive experiences or deals within restaurants at any time of the year. Instead of curating reviews, I'll be curating offers at top restaurants. I've already spoken to some of the biggest names in the industry and quite a lot of them are interested."

The AA recently announced that independent restaurants at one- and two-rosette level will now have to pay £180 if they want to be included in the guide, which Numphud says is only a contribution to the cost of inspection visits, providing feedback and supplying rosette display plates, as well as the production of the guide. However, under the current circumstances, the scheme has been suspended and those who have already paid this year will not be asked to pay next year.

Restaurants and restaurant guides in the UK have enjoyed a symbiotic relationship that's been ongoing for decades. The annual publication cycle and award events help to give shape to the hospitality year, creating a great deal of positive publicity that boosts individual businesses, the industry as a whole and even makes media stars of some industry figures. It can only be hoped that it takes more than a virus to break up that, mostly, happy marriage.

"The recovery of the industry will be far from short term," says Numphud. "It's heartbreaking seeing hospitality businesses not being able to survive this; however, I am confident that people love to eat out and will continue to do so. I hope that consumers will appreciate and value even more the service and hospitality and great food that restaurants offer, and also their social and cultural importance. We're confident that it will return, but it will change and be reshaped."

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