I received this at the end of last year from the Amazon Vine* programme. I chose it because my boyfriend and I enjoy eating out and I thought it would be a good way to discover new restaurants. The Guide has now been going 60 years, always with the aim on finding good food, and campaigning against convenience foods. Also, since the beginning, reader feedback and recommendations have been invaluable, inspections anonymous and the Guide remains independent. This edition contains 10 x £5 vouchers able to be used in some participating (and included) restaurants.
To be honest, I always assumed that the included restaurants would be top end, but there are a number of mid-priced and pub based restaurants included. Many entries are marked with a symbol which is '£30' and a downward arrow to indicate that it is possible to have three courses (not including wine) for under £30 per head.
Not all restaurants featured secure a Main Entry (and thus a Cooking Score), some get Also Recommended, or Readers Recommend status. Neither are scored but are considered worth a visit as a possible up and coming restaurant of the future. The latter status has reviews just from readers, but the former have often been visited by official inspectors also, so inclusions and any ratings are not based on just one meal. Cooking scores or ratings (out of 10) may seem quite harsh at first, but the achievement is to be included in the first place. A rating of 3 (for example) shows "Good cooking, showing sound technical skills and using quality ingredients".
The Guide is divided up by UK country and within each country, alphabetically by county. London gets its own section and in turn is divided up geographically. There are small maps at the front of each county section, which I like as if you are away from home, you don't always know where other places are, and all towns that have a restaurant included are marked (plus a few other towns), so you can get a rough idea how far these may be from your location. When I first got the Guide I quickly looked to see what restaurants local to me where included. Following on from that I then double checked places I had been to recently around the UK for their inclusion. I was surprise by the low rate that a number of restaurants I had really enjoyed got, but then the real top end restaurants are the ones with the really higher rates, and with that comes a higher price and perhaps an ambience that not all are comfortable in. On the other side of the coin, it was interesting to see a Chinese restaurant included that is about 20 minutes away, that I had not tried.
We have used this Guide quite often when looking for places to eat when we have been away from home, but sometimes discover and try other places on-spec when we are out and about, some of which we have subsequently discovered to be included. While I have not been surprised by any of the inclusions I have tried, I have often found I have had fabulous meals in places that I feel should have made it into the book. There is a feedback page on the website if you feel strongly enough about a place. Whilst the inspectors may have stringent guidelines, the ratings must have a certain about of subjectivity to them. For example, one of the top rated restaurants I visited was the Carlton Riverside in Llanwrtyd Wells which was awarded a six. However it was not the best restaurant I have tried within this book (the jury is still out as to who will get this award, but the current favourite only received a 3, and the runner-up a 'Also Recommended'), and both my boyfriend and I are in agreement, so don't let a low score put you off. It has given us lots of inspiration of places to try, but the budget isn't always willing!
Each main entry includes the following information to allow potential diners to make a decision:
A snappy bi-line such as "star in a gastropub galaxy" or "Popular all-day Brasserie", under which the address, telephone number and website are listed.
The cuisine type is printed below in bold - "Modern British" or "Seafood" with the estimated price for three courses without drinks. Below this would be the cooking score (if applicable). Main Entries also have a number of symbols that depict things such as meal less than £30 (as mentioned above), accommodation available, a V for more than three vegetarian main courses available, an indication that the restaurant is participating in the £5 voucher scheme, and perhaps a wine bottle symbol to indicate that their inspectors and wine experts have deemed the selection to exceed the norm. At the end of the write up (which varies in length), the chef is named, the days/dates the restaurant is closed are indicated as are the opening times. There is often further indication on prices such as if there is a set lunch menu, or alternatively the typical main course price. Further information includes: number of seats (also al fresco), air-conditioning, cards accepted, disabled access and car parking etcetera which are supplied by the restaurant themselves after being informed of their inclusion.
The write ups generally are concise but can vary in length. Usually there are brief descriptions given of the décor and service where notable (or otherwise), as well as a summation of the menu and interesting dishes of note described well, by people who have eaten them. The writing is accessible in that it is down to earth and not snobbish, it doesn't assume that we are all gastronomic experts, or look down on pubs and local ethnic restaurants.
In addition to the restaurant guide the book lists the readers' best restaurants by region, the editors awards, the longest serving restaurants (i.e. those those that have appeared in the book the most number of years) and a Top 60 restaurants (usually a Top 50) but extended for the 60th anniversary. At the back are further maps, and an index by town as well as restaurant.
Overall I would recommend this to people who enjoy eating out, especially if you take short breaks or travel around the UK occasionally. The RRP is £16.99 but deals are available on the web. I think I would buy this again, but I am not sure about every year. Although the Guide is completely rewritten every year, so restaurants on the wane may be dropped, and new ones are included, I would hesitate to purchase one every year, being happy to get one every two to three years.
* an invitational programme for their top ranked review writers.