Michelin guide pubs - Star spangled dinners

By Nigel Huddleston

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The stars of the Michelin Guide are just starting to light up the pubs of Britain. Nigel Huddleston reports on the pioneering days of what will...

The stars of the Michelin Guide are just starting to light up the pubs of Britain. Nigel Huddleston reports on the pioneering days of what will hopefully become a great new national tradition.

No wonder the Michelin man looks so happy at carrying a couple of spare tyres around his midriff in these high-protein, low-fat times. Presumably he's eating in some of the top restaurants that the company has become intrinsically linked with through the patronage of its dining guides and award system. Aside from a call-up to Ready Steady Cook, naturally there's no more prestigious accolade for a chef than to win a coveted Michelin star. The star system is principally associated with posh London eateries and country house hotels, but in recent years the pub trade has made a small dent in the hierar-chy. And the 2004 Michelin Guide has seen a giant step forward, with two pubs winning stars, almost doubling the quota of Michelin-starred pubs in the guide.

The latest to achieve star status are Wadworth's Trouble House at Tetbury in Gloucestershire and the Greyhound at Stockbridge in Hampshire. They join a line-up that comprises the Olive Branch, at Clipsham in Leicestershire, the Star Inn at Harome in North Yorkshire, and the Stagg Inn at Titley in Herefordshire. They're all in an elite band of 96 onestar establishments, 11 with two-stars and only three with three stars. The Michelin Guide also has a secondtier award, the Bib Gourmand, in which pubs feature more heavily.

There are seven new Bib Gourmand pubs in the 2004 publication: the Angel of Corbridge in Corbridge, Northumberland; the Stephen Langton Inn at Dorking, Surrey; the Durham Ox at Easingwold in North Yorkshire; the Wildebeest Arms in Norwich; the Jackson Stops Inn at Stamford, Lincolnshire; and the Distillers Arms at Bushmills in Northern Ireland. To qualify for this award, pubs have to offer quality local food at £25 or less for a set three-course menu.

But the Michelin star remains the prestige prize and its effects on business can be considerable.As one employee at an existing starred outlet put it: "The new ones can expect to be bloody busy." Sarah Bedford, who runs the Trouble House with husband Michael, says there had already been a discernible increase in bookings since the new guide was published in January. She says: "Sometimes January and February can be difficult, but business seems very consistent. I think it will be beneficial - we're seeing a lot of people who've never come here before."

Ben Jones, director of the Rutland Inn Co, which owns the Olive Branch, says the impact has been immediate on receiving its star in February 2001. He says: "The PR side has been brilliant, especially immediately after we were given the star.We pretty much doubled the number of covers in the first week and it had a massive effect on our figures."​ But the benefits go beyond just putting bums on seats.

Chef director Sean Hope says staff recruitment suddenly became a whole lot easier. He says: "Chefs want to work in that type of environment because it certifies that that they are going to a place with high standards of food service and preparation, and one where they'll be able to learn."​ The Greyhound gained its star less than two months after a management team, including manager Tom Renshaw and chef Darron Bunn, had taken over the business. Bunn had been made redundant after it went into receivership under its previous owners.

Renshaw says there has not yet been a marked increase in business volume, but a new type of customer has emerged. He says: "It's really only the food nerds who buy the guide when it first comes out. But people have naturally seen the publicity around it and there are hobbyists who go around visiting Michelin restaurants. So it's a different type of customer rather than a big increase in numbers. Having said that, the majority of our customers remain locals and regulars."

Probably the most difficult thing about winning a Michelin star is hanging on to it in subsequent years. Even restaurant legends can lose a star, as the Walnut Tree Inn at Abergavenny discovered this year. Sarah Bedford, co-licensee at the newlystarred Trouble House, says the accolade was a pleasing boost, but wouldn't be allowed to rule the business. "The instant reaction is to think you've got to change things and do this or that to live up to having a Michelin star. "I think some people can get a little bittoo absorbed by it. The important thing for us is that the business is our life and we want to make sure we stay doing what we're doing and keeping customers happy."

Renshaw at the Greyhound says there will be change in mindset. "It wasn't something we were working towards anyway. We weren't expecting it because I think one of the things they look for is consistency and it was a difficult year here. But we're very confident in what we do and they obviously liked what we were doing, so we'll keep doing it.We don't really have aspirations to go for a second star."​ Jones at the Olive Branch says it is important not to be blinded by the accolade and stick to what brought success in the first place. "There's always added pressure each year,"​ he says. "I think we're the pubiest of the Michelin-star pubs and we've tried hard to keep away from becoming a restaurant. We got the star for what we were doing and if we change that we'll alter people's perceptions of what we're about."

Hope adds that it is important not to be drawn into doing food that might be seen as Michelin in style. he says, "even though I'd worked in Michelin-star restaurants before. I've always aimed to do classical pub dishes, but to use my technical ability to make a statement about pubs and how good they are. You don't need to spend money on white truffles and foie gras.A really good steak and kidney pudding is just as enjoyable to cook."

An inspector calls​The Michelin selection process involves a team of full-time inspectors, all drawn from the hospitality industry, who visit outlets up for consideration during the course of the year. They all work to the same methods and criteria to allow consistency of judgment and they all operate incognito and pay their own bills to maintain anonymity and integrity. There's no fee for being in the Michelin Guide, but once an outlet has been chosen for inclusion, owners will be sent a questionnaire to get more details about the range of facilities on offer.

Existing Michelin venues also receive questionnaires so their entries can be updated. Failure to fill in the questionnaire results in omission from the guide. Obviously nobody in their right mind would fail to do so, given the prestige attached to being listed. Paul Cordle, of Michelin Travel Publications, says: "A team of inspectors would have a set route to cover, which would include new restaurants for consideration as well as existing entries. "We might get recommendations from members of the public, or owners might write to us and ask to be considered for entry, or we might pick up on articles on new openings in newspapers."

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