I’m not honestly sure how I first came across Harden’s Restaurant Survey a few years ago, although I expect it was through an email from them. Harden’s invites members of the public to complete a survey giving ratings and comments on restaurants they have visited; they then publish a book that features the restaurants for which they received a sufficient number of responses from survey participants. Up until recent years, Harden’s published a reporters’ edition of the guide book which they sent out to all participants as a token of appreciation; for the past couple of years, however, participants have received the full version of the book.
The survey has a number of categories such as "Best for romance" or "Most disappointing cooking." There is, however, no obligation to complete every category. Following the named categories is an open section where you are free to list any other eateries you wish. If Harden’s doesn’t already have a particular restaurant on its database, it is very easy to add its name and location, give the appropriate ratings and make comments. The survey remains open for several weeks, and the deadline is usually extended at least once to enable people to give their responses. When the book is published, Harden’s contacts its respondents by email to give them a chance to check their address details before the guide is despatched to them.
The book contains two main sections, the first being devoted to an alphabetical list of restaurants in London and the second to eateries in the rest of the UK. The second section is organised according to cities and towns in alphabetical order. For each restaurant, a price is given which represents the typical cost of a three-course dinner with half a bottle of wine, coffee, VAT and service charges. Most establishments are given numerical ratings for food, service and ambience on a scale of 1 to 5, compared to other restaurants in a similar price range. Some, however, are just given a T which stands for tip, usually because there haven’t been enough responses to give a fair rating. The address, phone number and a map reference are given, followed by a brief description that sometimes includes short comments made by survey participants. Each entry ends with the website address, abbreviated opening hours and remarks such as "no booking" or "no Amex."
Both of the main sections have their own index, the second one consisting simply of an alphabetical list of the names of restaurants. The London section has an index with subdivisions such as "Brunch," "Children" and "Romantic"; a second one organised according to types of cuisine, and finally one giving area overviews that are subdivided according to price. There are twelve maps of London that show the locations and names of restaurants. For the rest of the UK, there are ten double-page maps that just show the cities and towns whose restaurants are listed in the guide.
The guide lists almost three thousand restaurants, and the inclusion of any establishment obviously depends on the number of responses it receives from survey participants. I live in Portsmouth, and four of the city’s eateries are included in this edition: Abarbistro, Le Cafe Parisien, Loch Fyne, and Relentless Steak and Lobster House. Le Cafe Parisien and Loch Fyne only have a T rather than a full rating. Loch Fyne is one of the better restaurants locally, but it seems a shame that a chain restaurant is included whereas some of the interesting independent eateries are not. When I completed the survey I added several restaurants and pubs in Hampshire where I had eaten for the first time, but none of them feature in the guide, perhaps because I was the only respondent that mentioned them. Because of this, you don’t get anything like a complete picture of the eateries in a particular place.
In addition to the two main sections that give details of eateries, there are several chart listings for the most popular or most talked about restaurants. The book begins with The Sunday Times’ list of the UK’s 100 Best Restaurants, which is actually compiled by Richard and Peter Harden, the editors of the UK Restaurant Survey. The majority of them are in London, but at the top of the list is Andrew Fairlie, Gleneagles Hotel, Auchterarder. Other lists for the London section feature the forty most mentioned restaurants; those with the highest ratings for food, service, ambience and overall, according to price; those with the top special deals; and the best by cuisine, including French, Chinese, vegetarian, burgers and pizza among others. There is an overview of trends followed by a list of newly opened restaurants and another of closures. A few money-saving tips are given, such as avoiding the West End and having lunch rather than dinner at a restaurant. The first list in the UK section is entitled Places People Talk About, where the Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons occupies the top spot. List number two is for top scorers, and The Fat Duck is at the top, although this is actually because it is also the most expensive establishment in the list. All restaurants that achieve a food rating of 1 are included in that list, and it covers a very wide range of prices. There are a few photographs of restaurants dotted here and there throughout the book, mostly but not solely of unoccupied dining rooms.
This is a book that could be very useful to someone who travels a great deal and wants to find a good restaurant in a place they are not familiar with. I would imagine it is very valuable for visits to London, but there is a separate edition just for London (currently £9.29 on Amazon) without the rest of the UK for those who are only interested in the capital’s restaurants. Having said that there are only four restaurants listed for Portsmouth, I should perhaps mention that there are considerably more for Brighton and other large cities such as Manchester or Bristol. A few months ago, however, I was planning a stay in Penzance and was surprised to see in the 2012 edition of the guide that just one cafe and no restaurants at all were listed for the town. I didn’t even locate the cafe until about an hour before I was leaving Penzance, but we did have one of the best meals ever at the Navy Inn there, and it does seem a shame that the inn is not listed by Harden’s. Needless to say, I shall mention the Navy Inn when I complete the next survey, but if nobody else does, it may still not feature in the forthcoming edition of the book.
The book is printed on good quality paper which must add a little to the weight, so I would not want to be carrying it all the time I was travelling. The layout is in two columns, and the descriptions and comments are in italics. I find the text easy enough to read even though the font is on the small side.
It is of course interesting to have a restaurant guide based on the opinions of members of the public who have eaten in the establishments listed. The editors do state that they have themselves visited all the restaurants listed in London at their own expense, but I’m not sure as to whether they contribute to the ratings. I personally don’t travel enough to make it worth paying the full price for this guide, but I am of course pleased to receive a copy in return for completing the survey. I would recommend anyone who regularly eats out to participate in the survey and thus get the book free of charge. For those who can’t wait until next autumn, there are (as of December 2012) new copies on Amazon Marketplace from £7.48.
Harden’s UK Restaurant Survey
Paperback, 320 pages
Harden’s Guides, 2012