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Hardens; 25 Years in Food

Harden’s Restaurant Guide began in 1991, back when the idea of a UK TV chef becoming a household name in France and the US was inconceivable. What’s changed?

Hardens; 25 Years in Food

In the early ’90s, the joke went that in heaven, the lovers were Italian, the chefs French, the mechanics German, and the police British. In hell, the police were Italian, the mechanics French, the lovers German, and guess which nationality the chefs were…

Twenty five years ago the idea that UK TV chefs would be household names in France and the US would have been hilarious. So what changed? How did being a chef turn into the new rock ’n’ roll?

When we started Harden’s in 1991, one of the biggest objections to our new guide from bookshop buyers was that eating out was “only for posh bastards”.

The chef often credited with changing all that, Marco Pierre White, featured in our first guide as head chef at Harvey’s in Wandsworth. His best-seller, White Heat – complete with moodily intense pics – had just been published, and was recently described in a Caterer & Hotelkeeper article on its 25th anniversary as “the book that showed, warts and all, that the kitchen was a cool place to be”.

If MPW kick-started the trend, it soon took off. By the late ’90s, the Harden’s office started to field regular calls from TV production companies. It wasn’t us they wanted to make famous, unfortunately. The question they wanted answered: “Do you know any chefs who you think would make good TV? To be honest it doesn’t really matter if they can cook – what we need is a big personality: somebody who looks good on camera.”

Soon after saw the discovery of Gordon Ramsay brought no end of effing to the TV screen. The sweary one was the first London restaurant chef to become a global TV star, and his rise was a sure sign of the new, insatiable desire for food-led programming.

Hand-in-hand with the rise of TV chefs came a growing interest in, and respect for, ingredients and cooking. The now-universal (then rare) interest in local sourcing is part of a much foodier interest in food, that has helped spawn many more creative formats. Twenty five years ago, the 2-course or 3-course meal was the staple of the trade. Nowadays, expectations have shifted completely, and anywhere with ambition focuses on tapas, sharing plates and tasting menus.

And then there’s the invention of the internet and the advent of the smartphone. Restaurateurs are natural self-promoters, and have taken to social media like ducks to water. And for first-time restaurateurs, the arrival of Twitter and Facebook has helped overcome one of the biggest hurdles to them entering the business – premises. Now they can promote a pop-up anywhere! The explosion of tech has also put younger diners at the heart of the most fashionable eating out trends. Twenty and 30-somethings by and large own the pop-up and street food movements further overturning all the old stereotypes about food being a fogey-ish interest.Behind the scenes the demographics of dining have shifted. Mass immigration has boosted London’s population by a quarter in the last quarter century, providing lots of new willing customers (as well as motivated, skilled manpower for restaurants). Over a similar period ‘Generation Rent’ has postponed the average age at which we all buy a home and have kids from mid-20s to early-30s. All that hard-earned cash that would have been soaked up by nesting in an earlier generation, nowadays is available for hitting the town.

As well as changes in the restaurant trade, the lifetime of our business has also seen more change in the publishing industry than in most of its 500-year history.

Google, Yelp! and TripAdvisor have all targeted local listings, and, when it comes to “share of eyeballs”, dominate the market nowadays. Harden’s is now the only annual restaurant guide dedicated exclusively to London restaurants still widely sold in the capital’s bookshops.

Anyone can contribute a report to the survey, and feed it into the mix. We look carefully for cheats, and we throw out many bogus reports. We follow restaurants carefully year-on-year and watch for patterns. We know the market in depth, and provide a critical overview, rather than a lucky dip of random feedback. The system produces a handy, pithy, objective perspective to help diners get the best bang for their buck.However, we think – and our readers and website users seem to agree – that by using a diner-survey as the basis for our ratings, Harden’s is part of that progress, and that there is still a lot of value in the carefully curated user feedback that has always been at the heart of each Harden’s review.

Help us by taking part in the survey. Sign up at http://www.hardens.com/members/register.php! With your involvement, perhaps we can report to you all the changes that we see take place over the next 25 years…