The Quick Version
The Which? Good Food Guide and Harden's Restaurant Surveys are Britain's top dining out guides, both now available as books, websites and apps. So which one is for you? The Good Food Guide, put together by professional foodies and critics, selectively reviews the top places and features long, narrative descriptions of food and ambience. The Harden's Guides are based on surveys of ordinary punters. Reviews are short and punchy, coverage is comprehensive. Which one you choose depends on whether you want a special occasion meal or you just want to know where you can grab a decent bite to eat, a good pizza or a satisfying plate of dim sim.
A Guide to the Guide Books
The restaurant scene in Britain is thriving. Every year for the past few years, more new restaurants have opened than closed, their ambition and variety expanding at an explosive rate. If you believe the myth that British food is awful, you need to get out more. London is one of the great restaurant cities of the world and the rest of the country is quickly catching up.
Now that people's dining out expectations are rising, the number of restaurant guides, foodie blogs and dining out apps has risen too. There are a lot of choices, but two guides - both available as guidebooks, online guides and smartphone apps - lead the pack. Both the venerable Good Food Guide and Harden's UK Restaurant Survey are independent guides without any advertizing or sponsorship and both have their fans. Which guidebook or app is right for you? Or should you buy them both?
When choosing, consider:
- what kind of restaurants you like
- how listings are chosen and who does the reviews
- how much information you need and how comprehensive it should be
- how much you want to carry
- How convenient the guide is to use.
The Good Food Guide
- Pedigree The Good Food Guide is the great granddaddy. It was 1951 and the UK was still in postwar austerity with food rationing in full force when the late Raymond Postgate, a writer, scholar and historian, founded the guide. The first guide listed 600 establishments around the UK where travelers could expect "a good meal at a reasonable price." Restaurants were recommended by members of The Good Food Club. Today the annual guide, which runs to 624 pages in 2013, is published by Which?, the UK equivalent of the US Consumer Reports.
- Reviewers Anonymous reviewers are foodie professionals - ex-restaurateurs and chefs, as well as food writers and critics. They are paid and what they spend on meals is reimbursed.
- Style of Reviews Reviews are relatively lengthy by today's guidebook standards. The editors value a clever turn of phrase and detailed descriptions of the restaurant and the dining experience. Restaurants can receive a rating, from 1 to 10, for the quality of the food. Other considerations such as service and ambience are described in the text. Restaurants considered worth a visit or included on an "up and coming" list may not have numerical ratings. Like the Michelin Guides - which this guide resembles in aspiration if not in actual content - the editors consider that to be included in this guide, whether rated or not, is an honor and any restaurant they included is worthy of your attention.
- Method of Selection Compiling the list is a bit of a mystery. A long list is created from feedback that comes in from members of the public who fill in feedback forms included in the printed book or who subscribe to the website or the app. There is either a monthly subscription fee or a small cost added to the purchase of the book online to join the website and contribute feedback. After that, the editors use their judgement in creating the shortlist of restaurants to be reviewed by their anonymous team.
- Coverage This guide is relatively exclusive, proclaiming its intention of casting the spotlight on only the very best restaurants, cafes and bistros in the UK. A total of 1,800 restaurants were reviewed in the 2013 edition and associated app.
- Price and How to Buy In 2013, the book was available online for between £17 and £20, or under $11 for the Barnes & Noble Nook Buy Direct.
- The App The app is sold separately at the iTunes Store and in 2013 cost £5.49. It uses either a location-based feature - finding restaurants near you and placing them on a map - or by advanced search - typing in the name of a location and then using sliders to set filters for price, distance and cooking scores. I found the map function rather fiddly as you have to touch the little map markers to find out the name of the restaurant. Navigating back to the map to check out other markers can be buggy with the app losing your location easily. Once you decide to explore a restaurant listing, there is a relatively lengthy review, and facilities to make a booking, visit the website or telephone. The app also has various feature articles, editors picks and award winners that scroll across the bottom of the screen, changing when the app is updated.
Harden's UK Restaurant Survey
- Pedigree Peter and Richard Harden published their first London Restaurants guide in 1991. The brothers had been working in New York and Dusseldorf and noticed that both cities had handy, pocket-sized, opinionated dining out guides. They decided London needed something similar. The UK Restaurant Survey, covering the rest of the country followed in 1998. The London Guide is now well established as the Londoner's restaurant bible. The UK-wide guide is quickly gaining a following as well.
- Reviewers Ordinary folks like you and me report on their local favorites for the Harden's guides. Anyone who registers for the free website can add an opinion on the best restaurants in a number of categories. Reporters are asked to rate restaurants from 1 to 5 for food, service and ambience (shown as FSA). The actual annual restaurant survey runs for a few months and is announced on the website and the free email newsletter. As an added incentive, to stimulate a high number of reviews, anyone who submits five reviews receives a free copy of the guide when it is published. From a start of about 100 reviewers, corralled from among the Hardens' friends and associates in 1991, the number of reporters grew to 8,000 - submitting more than 80,000 reviews - for the 2013 edition.
- Style of Reviews Each listing provides restaurant name and address (several addresses if it is a multiple), phone, website, closing time, price of a typical two course meal with wine for one, the FSA ratings and a short, sharp review of about 50 words. Reviews are composed of linked readers comments. This one, for an Edinburgh restaurant is typical: For fans, "no visit to Edinburgh is complete" without a trip to this characterful veteran in a New Town basement - it "never fails to please with the good and interesting veggie scoff it's now been serving for half a century!". And reviews are not always favorable. Here's one for a popular London spot: The food may be "predictable", say fans, but the "outstanding" ("fantastic-value") wine list of this stalward rendezvous fuels what they claim is "one of the best atmospheres in Chelsea"; for critics, though, the place is just a "car crash" -- "the cooking is abysmal, and the customers are worse!" These are pocket reviews for a pocket guide. Very good indexing enables readers to narrow down their selections based on prices ranges and types of cuisine. The Sunday Times UK's 100 Best Restaurants list also appears in the guide.
- Method of Selection This is a survey and the reviews are based on analysis of thousands of reader submissions. If a lot of people are talking about a restaurant, it will appear in the guide. It's more democratic and less selective than the Good Food Guide so, inevitably, a fair number of chain restaurants get covered as well as restaurants where the food may not be as good as the ambience or service.
- Coverage This is by far the most comprehensive restaurant guide around. The London guide covers 1,800 establishments and the UK guide has 3,000 listings.
- Price and How to Buy In 2013, the London Restaurant Guide book was available online for about $17 (Compare Prices) and the UK Restaurant Survey cost about the same (Buy Direct).
The App The app is sold separately at the iTunes Store and in 2013 when I downloaded it here in the UK, it cost me £6.99. I think it is probably the better value, though, as it includes both the massive London and the UK databases. The App's very welcoming home screen allows you to choose the way you will search before you start with categories labeled:
- Find A-Z
- Near Me
- Choose Location
- Book Near Me
- Diary (a listing of the bookings you have made)
- Info (about the app)
- Top 10s
- Report Newcomer (to add a restaurant not already covered)