The age of good food guides: do gourmet bibles still have a role to play in the internet age?

FROM The AA Guide to Zagat by way of The Good Food Guide, Hardens, Les Routiers and, of course, Scotland the Best, there are enough guides telling us where to eat to give anyone indigestion. In fact, it may be that the next niche product for some enthusiastic young web entrepreneur is to create a guide to the guides.

• A time when tastes were simpler and the Good Food Guide was just launching. Pic: Getty Images

But with estimates putting the number of restaurants in the UK at somewhere between 50,000-60,000 there are plenty of eateries fighting for customers and therefore eager to be featured, preferably with a few kind words as well as the method by which people can book a table.

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Next week will see the 60th anniversary publication of The Good Food Guide which, according to the guide itself, is "a must for the discerning foodie". But in an age when iPhones can guide us via GPS to the restaurants we happen to be near and there are a seemingly endless stream of websites which tell us not only what the restaurants themselves want us to know, but also what Jim from Dumfries or Eleanor from Inverness made of the various eateries they've sampled – how necessary are these restaurant guides?

According to Michelin-starred chef Martin Wishart, chef-proprietor of Restaurant Martin Wishart in Edinburgh, guides matter. "Of course there are customers who still use guides, particularly those who are travelling. For restaurateurs it's also a good way to gauge how your business is rated against other restaurants, not just in your own town or city but nationwide. They can be a good yardstick."

Lord Bradford agrees. The owner of Porter's English Restaurant Covent Garden and the man behind says that, for the industry at least, guides are as necessary as they've ever been.

"It's enormously important," he says. "The loss or the gain of a Michelin star can make a huge difference to a restaurant. I can remember way back at the end of 1976 I owned a restaurant called Bewicks, I'd only owned it for three or four months, we got a star in the Egon Ronay guide and it was absolutely staggering the difference it made to trade. And equally of course, the other way round the loss of a star can be very serious." Just ask Gordon Ramsay.

Back in 1951 when Raymond Postgate compiled the first Good Food Guide his aim was to "raise the standard of cooking in Britain". Coping with postwar scarcity and the fact that the culinary revolution started by Elizabeth David was yet to happen, the original ethos of Postgate's guide (much the same as his Campaign Against Cruelty to Food) was to face the fact that much British food was bad, but to highlight that there were a few good places worth seeking out. Perhaps not Le Bistro in Edinburgh, though, which featured in the 1973 guide with the following remarks: "Not as French as it sounds, not as warm (in cold weather) as you hope, and on occasion in the past, no cleaner than it should be."

Now, of course, eating out is a national pastime and Britain can boast some of the finest restaurants in the world. But what is the purpose of guides telling us where to eat – are they about honest critique or just another way to make money? As the number of free magazines and websites has increased where it's clear that to be featured all a restaurant must do is pay a fee, book an ad or subscribe to a certain booking system, how do discerning customers looking to make sure a meal is at best a gastronomic treat and at worst, edible, know that what they're getting is a genuine, impartial recommendation?

According to Simon Numphud, the man in charge of AA Hotel Services – which includes the AA Rosette scheme and produces The AA Restaurant Guide – independence and credibility are absolutely vital.

"This year's edition is our 19th and so our reputation is something that we've built up over all the years that we've been around," he says. "It's extremely important. The only thing a restaurant would pay for in our guide is a photograph to enhance their entry. Other than that, we pay. And it's not a cheap thing to do."

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With around 2,000 restaurants in the guide, Numphud has a team of professional, full-time inspectors who inspect all the restaurants on an annual basis. They pay for the food they eat and remain completely independent. However, like The Good Food Guide, which was started with the clear intention of improving the standard of food served in British restaurants at a time when Britain was still experiencing post-war shortages, for Numphud, the role of the AA guide is not only to provide information to paying customers but also to give restaurant owners and chefs an insight into the dining experience in their establishments.

"We're the only food guide that will give feedback to the proprietor or chef," explains Numphud. "We like to engage with the restaurateur. We pride ourselves on working with the industry because we're passionate about promoting quality."

As to how the restaurants are selected – there are a variety of ways. Word of mouth still counts for a lot, with inspectors "in the field" hearing about new establishments opening, or improvements which have been made. Restaurants can also apply to be considered, as they do with Les Routiers. According to Numphud, the AA receives between 20 and 40 letters of application from restaurants each month.

With more than 14,000 restaurants on his site, for Lord Bradford, the process is slightly different, but the idea of selection – a basic listing on is free so no-one can buy in – remains important.

"We try to concentrate on what I'd call proper restaurants. I've been in the business nearly 40 years and I'm the final arbiter. Anywhere that's in a decent guide, anyone with a Michelin star or an AA Rosette, we're happy to accept. And if we don't know enough about them we ask for an awful lot of additional information.

"Everybody wants to get a free listing if they possibly can on a credible guide. Obviously we can't be sure 100 per cent of the time but we try to make sure that people will have a decent dining experience wherever they go. But even the best of restaurants don't get it right 100 per cent of the time." For Lord Bradford, the strength of the internet is the speed with which reviews can be posted and the way in which information can be kept up to date.

"One of the problems of the official guides, or whatever you choose to call them, is that they can be out of date by the time that they hit the street," he says. "You go and look in The Good Food Guide each year and very often you'll find the odd blank page in there – 'this restaurant has closed'. With printing deadlines it's difficult to keep them completely up to date. The internet is so immediate."

Martin Wishart is no stranger to the power of the internet. The chef uses his own website to share news of upcoming events and new menus, profiles of his staff and even short films of what goes on behind the scenes at the restaurant. "Blogging or putting up a comment on a site is an interesting way to put across your point of view about your dining experience or your stay somewhere," he says. "With printed guides, though, it's something that you can sit down and flick through, or you can take with you as a reference while you travel. But I've no doubt the internet guides are here to stay."

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There is a downside to this, though. Recently it has emerged that some online sites are being used for purposes far from honest, open reviewing. Whether it's critical reviews being posted by disgruntled ex-staff or rival restaurauters out to spoil things for the competition, online anonymity can mean that people are not always entirely honourable in their intentions.

According to Lord Bradford, monitoring reviews is vital, as is the fact that sites must be "up front" about how they work.

For Numphud the potential for this kind of misuse on some online sites is why recognised and trusted brands such as the AA are becoming more important rather than less. "In an age when you can claim whatever you want for your establishment on the internet, I believe that has created a niche for organisations like the AA," he says. "We are well established and credible, consumers turn to us because they trust the judgements we make. They appreciate that we have a professional team which inspects these places, it's not just a subjective opinion as to whether it was lovely or not so lovely, it's a professional assessment."

As to who reads these titles, well that's probably best described as anybody and everybody. From tourists trying to navigate new cities, to people involved in the industry trying to keep an eye on whose fortunes are up and whose are down, to those who want to know whether there's a new chef on the block, most restaurant guides are for everyone. The Michelin Guide might be the one that most chefs aspire to but for most regular restaurant goers, every level of restaurant is important.

"Eating out has become a casual part of our lifestyle, therefore it's important that you cover the whole spectrum, from Michelin star restaurants to quality chain restaurants such as Zizzi or Nandos," says Lord Bradford. "By nature the printed guides tend to be rather elitist."

But Numphud disagrees. "Our guide isn't just a fine dining guide. We never wanted to be elitist because we think that food should be accessible to everyone. Of course, we have the crme de la crme of the restaurant industry in the book but we rate a really vast mix of restaurants. You'll find every cuisine-type in The AA Guide and we believe that's important because it shows the diversity of the range of food on offer in the UK.

"Like other guide books we have a loyal following of readers who have always read our guides, who trust us and so continue to buy each edition," he says. "They're a mixture of our motoring members and people in the industry but there are also foodies, which might encompass everyone from retired people who have the income and the time to visit restaurants regularly to a younger audience who are passionate about food."

In fact, Numphud believes this is the market which is growing as more of us sit in front of our televisions and watch various professional chefs and celebrity wannabes do their best to avoid splitting their custard or leaving lumps in their emulsions, or turn to our phone apps or favourite foodie websites for top tips as to where to eat.

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"We have 15 iPhone apps in the marketplace and we recently launched the hotel/restaurant/B&B/Pub Guide as part of that series," Numphud says. "They've done incredibly well. They've only been going a couple of months and they've done in the region of 120,000 downloads since then."

With the guidebook industry feeling the pinch as the internet grows (travel books are down 23 per cent across the board) it seems that for food guides times will continue to be tight and embracing the internet rather than resisting it, along with ensuring the credibility of reviews, might just be the essential ingredients for continued success.