UK cuisine has witnessed highs and lows since The Good Food Guide was first published in 1951 – from austerity Britain, by way of the swinging Sixties, to the gastronomic riches of today. The Guide’s consultant editor, Elizabeth Carter reviews.
Whalemeat rissoles, synthetic custard, dried egg, mock cream – Second World War rationing wreaked havoc on the already shaky reputation of British food. Who needed a chef when the Ministry of Food was recommending such practices as slicing a cold joint thinly, covering it with hot gravy and serving it as roast meat? When it came to eating in restaurants, the diner knew his place. All a manager needed to say was, “Don’t you know there’s a war on?” to silence any complaints. Even after the war, eating out was a lottery, because rationing continued until 1954, and the bad food and bad habits carried on for much longer.
When the journalist and social historian Raymond Postgate started his Campaign against Cruelty to Food, he galvanised an army of like-minded people to report on places where the food was decent, leading to the publication of The Good Food Guide in 1951. To give some idea of what Postgate’s army was up against, one meal, recorded by a horrified Guide reporter at the time, included: ‘a “minestrone” of sliced vegetables in coloured water; scampi, tough and tasteless; roast lamb, cut thin, overcooked to brownness in a weak beef extract gravy; and an aniline-coloured gateau with fake cream.’
Fifties: austerity Britain
In those early editions of The Good Food Guide, nearly every restaurant was actually a pub or an inn. If you counted the number of proper dining destinations outside London you were lucky to hit 30. Criteria for inclusion extended to ‘any place where food could be eaten without nausea, where the helpings were not derisively tiny, and the staff not directly rude’.
Postgate’s aim in setting up the Guide was to establish the same standards of freshness and quality of food that existed in France. But by the end of the 1950s he had to admit there were, at the most, 20 restaurants in Britain where the cooking deserved the two adjectives ‘individual’ and ‘artistic’. George Perry-Smith’s Hole in the Wall in Bath was probably the single most influential restaurant of the post-war years. His menus, inspired by food writer Elizabeth David, were extraordinary for the time, offering an eclectic range of dishes from the Mediterranean and beyond – bouillabaisse with rouille, tarragon chicken, goulash and coulibiac.
Sixties: new flavours – bistros and trattorias
Restaurants only came to dominate the eating-out market during the 1960s. Affluence drove the cultural revolution and cheap package holidays gave people a taste for new, exciting flavours. As the UK prospered, it needed workers from abroad, attracting small populations of Italians, Indians, Pakistanis and Chinese. Escalope Cordon Bleu, trout with almonds, moussaka and steak pizzaiola proved popular dishes in the bistros, tavernas and trattorias that sprang up, serving their food against a backdrop of checked tablecloths and candles in wine bottles. They vied for business with the Chinese and Indian restaurants that were starting to appear in towns and cities around the UK.
Higher up the pecking order, places such as the Walnut Tree near Abergavenny and the Box Tree in Ilkley followed George Perry-Smith’s lead, transforming restaurant cooking from the stilted and tasteless into something akin to Elizabeth David’s ideas – fresh, simple and flavoursome. And with the opening of Le Gavroche, the Roux brothers offered a fresher look at French cooking than Soho’s Mon Plaisir, a stalwart of the Guide from the 1950s. Looking back on his first edition, Postgate noted in 1965: ‘Four out of five entries would scarcely even be considered now’.
Seventies: the prawn cocktail years
The Seventies opened with Mr Chow – a glitzy Knightsbridge Chinese with customer-friendly Italian waiters and a celeb following of films stars, musicians and artists – established as The Ivy of its day. At the same time, a new Guide editor, Christopher Driver, was determined to be rid of the badly executed culinary clichés that screamed from menus across the country, including old chestnuts such as starters of prawn cocktail, pâté maison, spring vegetable soup and avocado aux crevettes; mains such as duck à l’orange, beef Stroganoff and tournedos Rossini; and desserts including sherry trifle, crème caramel and peach Melba.
It may be fashionable now to deride it as a decade of extraordinarily bad taste, but the Seventies also produced some of Britain’s most iconic restaurants and chefs. Hoisting the Tricolore high with varying interpretations of French cooking were Michel Roux at the Waterside Inn by the Thames, Nico Ladenis at Chez Nico in Dulwich, and Raymond Blanc at his original Les Quat’ Saisons in Oxford. In the English corner, The Carved Angel in Dartmouth was making waves with Joyce Molyneux (a protégée of Perry-Smith) and future Good Food Guide editor Tom Jaine at the helm, while in Padstow a certain Richard Stein was turning his failing nightclub into The Seafood Restaurant.
Eighties: nouvelle cuisine meets Thatcherism
The grand kitchens of hotels and restaurants such as the Connaught and Le Gavroche were the training grounds for a new wave of chefs who felt constrained preparing classic French dishes in the traditional, time-consuming way and wanted to set up on their own. This explosion in the growth of small restaurants coincided with the advent of nouvelle cuisine and its reappraisal of classic French cooking. Though ultimately ridiculed, nouvelle cuisine’s most positive aspect was the recognition of the chef as a creative artist. And it picked up on a new mood – the dynamism of Thatcher’s Britain.
When Drew Smith took over as editor in 1983, he began campaigning under the banner slogan of ‘real food’. Provenance became all-important in a competitive search for the most authentic foods, as chefs sought the best oils, meat and even fruit and veg from Italy, France and beyond. Suddenly, with a burgeoning restaurant market, a growing number of British cooks, such as Simon Hopkinson, Alastair Little and Rowley Leigh, came out of the shadow of French cuisine and produced British dishes based emphatically on home-grown ingredients (with some eclecticism on the side). Smith coined the phrase ‘modern British cooking’. Then a firebrand named Marco Pierre White swaggered onto the scene with iconic dishes such as his tagliatelle of oysters and baked pig’s trotter stuffed with morels and sweetbreads, inspiring a whole new generation of chefs.
Nineties: multiculturalism on a plate, fusion-style
Though many nationalities still considered British cooking an affront to the palate, in truth, the Nineties restaurant scene was recorded with excitement by Jim Ainsworth, who became editor in 1995. British, French, Italian, Spanish, Chinese, Indian, Thai, Japanese and other cultures all contributed to a polyglot cuisine.
With globalisation and easy long-haul travel encouraging a search for new tastes, ‘fusion food’ entered the culinary lexicon. Diversity ruled and it wasn’t unusual to find, say, a soup of mooli, butter beans and sage; roast fish with cardamom and orange; and calf’s kidneys wrapped in caul fat with crunchy parsnip chips and onion gravy – all on a single menu. In the wings, a gang of young chefs were already sharpening their knives (among them Gordon Ramsay and Heston Blumenthal), and the decade closed with the Ludlow phenomenon, the world noticing that the tiny Shropshire town had accumulated a clutch of top-rated restaurants.
Noughties: gastropubs rule, UK chefs take on the world
Pubs have been changing ever since (and arguably before) The Eagle opened in London in 1991 serving rustic, no-nonsense, quality grub, and the first decade of the 21st century has seen the extraordinary rise of the gastropub. But it’s a trend that takes us full circle. Pubs and inns dominated the British dining scene in the 1950s; they do so again, today. But what a difference!
Sixty years on, The Good Food Guide’s legacy is the growing reputation of British food and restaurants. After years of disparagement (especially from the French), Britain now has an enviable culinary reputation. British chefs are internationally renowned, and a modest restaurant called The Fat Duck in a little Berkshire town is now acclaimed as one of the top three restaurants in the world. Postgate would be delighted.
Changing tables: the UK food scene timeline
1957 Rich, buttery salmon baked in pastry with currants and preserved ginger, created at the Hole in the Wall restaurant in Bath, is a dinner-party hit in a Britain still recovering from rationing.
1967 Chicken Kiev provesa popular dish with Sixties Guide readers. Later, in 1976, it becomes M&S’s first ready-meal.
1987 The Guide coins the phrase ‘modern British cooking’, giving identity and impetus to a new generation of young chefs, with Marco Pierre White as the figurehead.
1991 The Eagle in London is dubbed the first gastropub. Its shabby-chic décor and new-wave Med cooking leave the Guide asking for ‘one on every street please’.
2006 The burger goes from gastropub staple to respectable restaurant dish. The squid and mackerel burger at Soho’s Arbutus restaurant is hailed as a world-beater.
Good Food Guide website