Interview: Richard Harden of the Harden’s Guide

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 27th October 2014
Hardens Guide - The best-selling independent restaurant guide was first published over twenty years ago, after brothers Richard and Peter Harden spotted that New York and Düsseldorf both had handy, pocket type restaurant guides but London didn’t. The brothers managed to eat their way around the capital themselves as well as survey a hundred people for the first guide and in 1998 it was joined by a companion volume of UK restaurants. hardens Nowadays the survey comprises over 8,000 people and over 80,000 reports. We spoke to editor and co-founder Richard Harden about the guide’s approach, the changing industry and its future. Your three numbers approach differs from the star system of other restaurant guides; why do you use this system? Restaurants are never just about the food. More often than not, the food is not even the most important thing. Most people organising a celebration, for example, would much prefer to sacrifice something on the food front in exchange for a festive ambience. It seems to us that a single rating cannot therefore begin to inform customers about what they really need to know. We chose to rate food, service and ambience. I think there is an argument that we should just have rated food and ambience. What do you think gives a restaurant ‘good’ ambience? Like every aspect of the restaurant-going experience, it depends on what the customer probably wants. One of the advantages of our system is that the people who rate each restaurant are the people who naturally go there. Mayfair business restaurants are rated by Mayfair businessmen, for example, and Shoreditch hipster spots by Shoreditch hipsters (or at least the hipper end of our reviewer base), so every reviewer naturally appraises each restaurant in the terms of what the customer base of that restaurant is looking for. What are the advantages of using the general public for opinions rather than critics? Critics are generally there to amuse, not to inform, so there's not really much to compare. One man, or woman’s view is interesting, but it can't tell you much, for example, about whether a restaurant is consistent from day to day. As to the difference between the public and inspectors, the main problem with inspectors is that they can’t avoid having idées fixes – ex-chefs are absolutely the worst! – whereas real people just judge naturally. We’ve all had a lot of hot dinners. Another problem is that a single inspection visit can’t tell you much about the consistency of the establishment concerned, whereas we have somewhere round a report every day of the year, on average, on some top London restaurants. We really can see whether they are consistent or not! Hardens Logo Croppped You first started twenty years ago, a time before the Internet was in wide use. How has the shift towards Internet blogging and social media affected your guide? How have you managed to stand out? Hardly anyone else does what we do, in fact, which is to take a huge volume of feedback and distil it into 50 words you can trust on each establishment. Since you now list all your ratings and reviews on your website, is there a danger of the print version becoming outdated? Print versions 'date' because they cannot reflect the latest news in the way the web can. That's true, but what the web is still very bad at is guiding; actually giving you positive hints as to places you might like to check out in the first place. The web is very good about telling you more about places whose names you already know, but not so good at telling you which places you should want to know about. A guide and the web gives you the best of both worlds. Or you may mean that the economics of the trade will make the continuation of printed guides impossible. This is also true - we hear that a couple of long-standing competitor guides to Harden's are not coming out this year. But we soldier on, and continue to improve our online presence at the same time. It would be a great shame if written guides were discontinued. They still give you a concise overview in a way which no website I've ever seen can. What changes have you noticed in the food industry since your guide began?Credit to Hardens What has not changed? It’s bigger, brighter, better, more ambitious, more diverse in types and specialisation of cuisine, more diverse in the areas you find decent restaurants….nothing is the same. Are there any changes you find particularly the most interesting/exciting? The most obviously good change is the democratisation of dining out. When we started interest in dining out was a rather cliquey interest, largely confined to people with a fair amount of money. Nowadays, it's for (almost) everyone and new concepts come along all the time which give younger and more impecunious people a taste of the action, so to speak. You started off as a London guide and later expanded to the whole of the UK. Are there plans for further expansion in the future? No. Guides are culturally specific. The only international series of guides is Michelin, which is often seen as being French-culturally-specific, whatever they say to the contrary! We don't think an English guide would have credibility in, say, France. By Stuart Armstrong Look out for the latest edition of the Harden’s Guide coming out in a few weeks time. What’s your experience of Harden’s? How does it compare to other restaurant guides? Tweet us @CanteenTweets with your comments.

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 27th October 2014

Interview: Richard Harden of the Harden’s Guide