Never deferential, open to all – how the Good Food Guide democratised dining

In the wider scheme of things, and amid so much devastation from Covid, it may seem frivolous to get indignant about the closure of a venerable national publication. Times and priorities change, after all. Tastes and markets alter. Each year, long before Covid, many other publications have died too.

Yet the passing of the Good Food Guide, which was quietly announced last week by its current owner, Waitrose, was a cruel and avoidable death with wider resonance for British life and social history. The annual guide to this country’s best places to eat was in good commercial health as its 70th anniversary approached. As restaurants rebuild, if they can, after the pandemic, the guide’s public service role would have been more important than ever.

Waitrose seems to have shut down the guide after the heavy losses sustained by its parent company, the John Lewis Partnership, in the pandemic. These have led to the closure of stores, thousands of redundancies and, for the first time in John Lewis’s history, the suspension of the share-of-profits annual bonus paid to all its workforce.

In such circumstances, the axing of a guide whose readership was inevitably likely to be more affluent and middle class than many of the workforce may have seemed like sharing out the pain. In killing the Good Food Guide, however, Waitrose has put an abrupt end to one of Britain’s most successful grassroots socialist projects, and one of the very few with a genuine claim to have helped spark a lasting social revolution.

The Good Food Guide was the creation of the radical historian and journalist Raymond Postgate. Postgate was a middle-class anti-first world war activist and a founding member of the Communist party in 1920. He married the daughter of the pacifist Labour party leader George Lansbury, and he was the brother-in-law of the political theorist GDH Cole, with whom he wrote a once famous social history, The Common People.

Postgate’s many other writings included biographies of Robert Emmet and John Wilkes. He was an editor of the Tribune newspaper before Aneurin Bevan replaced him. He also wrote Bolshevik Theory, which HG Wells personally recommended to Lenin, who in turn sent Postgate a signed photograph which he kept for the rest of his life.

Postgate was not just a socialist. He also believed that good food and drink were the rights of all. So appalled was he at the state of British food in the post-1945 period that he planned a Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Food, which morphed into the Good Food Club. Around the same time he published The Plain Man’s Guide to Wine. Postgate regarded food, the Observer’s restaurant critic Jay Rayner says, “as something that was as important as any other aspect of our cultural life, like the arts, fashion and sport”.

Postgate was not alone in this. The Good Food Guide was created in the same postwar period as the NHS, the Arts Council and, later, the Open University. Although it was what we might now call a “big society” project, created at the grassroots by middle-class consumers, it embodied the same postwar ethic that saw universal access to the best as an essential part of a good society.

In 1951, Postgate edited the first guide. From the start it was a cooperative and inclusive enterprise – a complete contrast to the Michelin Guides with their top-down edicts. For many years, it always contained blank pages and forms for users to submit their own reviews. There was no advertising – a tradition that was maintained to the end.

The Good Food Guide was not uniquely responsible for the transformation of diet, cooking and restaurants that so marked Britain over the past half century. There were many other factors involved – cookery writers, greater affluence, foreign holidays, immigration and more efficient supply chains all among them. But the guide’s role was crucial, too. Its success, according to the social historian David Kynaston, was “a pioneering case of consumer power”.

In part, this is because it was never obsequious towards the dominance of French cooking in the grandest British restaurants or towards the capital city. As the food historian Pen Vogler points out in her book Scoff, a recent study of food and class in this country, the very first edition featured vegetarian, Chinese, Spanish, Greek and Italian restaurants as well as French. This cosmopolitan approach grew ever stronger with the years.

Nor was it in thrall to the most expensive restaurants. There was always a place for the posh hotels and, later, for the celebrity chefs such as Heston Blumenthal. But they sat cheek by jowl with all kinds of other eateries, from curry houses and early gastro pubs to a fish and chip shop like the one at the end of our road when I was a boy in Leeds. In the 1960s, the guide provoked headlines by including an entry on the Leicester Forest East service area on the newly built M1.

Nor was it dominated by London. Growing up in Yorkshire, I would read its recommendations of places such as the Box Tree in Ilkley and the Red Lion in Burnsall, to which my parents would sometimes take us. Without the Good Food Guide, I would never have found my own way in later years to places like the Drunken Duck near Ambleside, the Carved Angel in Dartmouth, The Ubiquitous Chip in Glasgow, the Walnut Tree in Gwent or Harry’s Shack, a wonderful fish restaurant by the beach at Portstewart, County Derry. Even Jay Rayner admits: “They will always find some places that I’ve not heard of and will want to try.”

The Good Food Guide has changed in countless ways down the years. But its essence and ethos are the same in 2021 as they were in 1951. What has changed – hugely – is the number and standard of restaurants and the other ways that customers judge where to eat. Home delivery has created a revolution of its own, as have crowdsourced reviews.

Nevertheless, if good food is important – and it is – then the Good Food Guide ought still to be an essential aid to finding those special places that modern life, not just modern middle-class life, is constantly searching for. None of the other guides matches it for reliability, values and, above all, the geographical and culinary range that derive from its consumer-driven approach.

To read the editor Elizabeth Carter’s introduction to the 2020 edition is especially poignant this week. Why buy a printed guidebook like this, asked Carter, when the digital media were now stuffed with recommendations? “To put it simply,” she answered, “the Guide’s long-established, dependable voice is needed more than ever. With such a wealth of information available, you need advice you can trust.” And that was before Covid.

As Britain emerges, if it does, from the pandemic this summer, many restaurants will open, succeed, fail and close. It will be an extremely turbulent period for an ever-changing industry. The Good Food Guide is needed in such times, both for the providers and the consumers. Waitrose should rethink its decision. If it does not, then others must step forward to rescue and renew the nimbleness, quirkiness, independence, high standards and, above all, the commitment to the people’s welfare that drove Postgate to create it in the first place.

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