Last Thursday, the Evening Standard carried an opinion piece by Fay Maschler, inspired by a press release we issued the day before.
Yesterday the Standard kindly published a (heavily edited) letter responding to her piece. One aspect they missed out was the bit about whether Fay’s perspective was possibly warped by not paying her own bills. Another omission was the fact that only the week before, Fay had sought statistical information from Harden’s, and had seemed pleased with the response.
For this reason, we were particularly taken aback by the derisive tone of the article, which attacked our publication of the sort of data she’d been so pleased with just a few days earlier.
For those who are interested in how the press works, or has worked in this case, we’ve dissected her article below.
Don’t just take our word though. The raw material for her piece is our press release, so you’re at perfect liberty to form your own view as to whether Ms Maschler’s commentary is fair.
Text in bold in Ms Maschler’s original article, published in the Evening Standard last Thursday.
In their annual bid for media coverage of their newest guide - Harden's London Restaurants 2012, published September 1 - Richard and Peter Harden have unveiled a new shock-horror or, in their peculiar choice of phrase “a perfect storm”. The dread hurricane, the rogue wave, is the announcement that in the past year London restaurant prices have increased by 11.1 per cent.
It is a fact universally acknowledged amongst newspaper critics that Harden’s get too much PR. They are surprised that the conclusions of a survey of 8,000 people, and a two-month data-gathering exercise from restaurants gets more coverage on the news pages than their pronouncements generally do.
Fay is the latest to attack the publication of these statistics as vacuous PR. We reject this utterly. We do research no one else really does, so it’s hardly surprising if newspapers sometimes find the results interesting.
Take that look at our Press Release. Don't most people think price inflation twice the rate of inflation is pretty notable? We suspect that people paying for their own meals do.
Note also that the 'perfect storm’ which really forms the basis for the whole article was plucked from relative obscurity. It didn’t appear in either the headline, or the (rather sober) introductory paragraph.
The cost of an average dinner for two in the capital, they say, now “bursts the £90 barrier” for the first time.
Of course their average is not our average. Unless your eating out tendency consists of continually whizzing between a branch of Ping-Pong and Marcus Wareing at The Berkeley, the £45-a-head figure is fairly arbitrary. But the sum is also not particularly surprising since most of us already reckon that a reasonably ambitious, well-padded meal for two will not come in for much under a ton.
Of course our average is based on an index including cheap and expensive restaurants. That’s what an index does. And the point is? Our numbers are ‘arbitrary’ but ‘not surprising’ – hang on, we thought they were just silly and attention-grabbing. Puzzled...
It is not only restaurateurs who have felt the pinch of increased VAT, escalating food prices and increased utilities bills. Life - it's getting more expensive. Is that news?
Yes! Rail fares up 8% was front-page news. Why not restaurants up 11%? We thought that was the area Fay was especially interested in. If the RPI hits that same 11% even The Sun are going to lead on it.
Perhaps fretting about rising prices, like paying your own restaurant bills, is only a concern of the ‘little people’?
There is, however, a lingering feeling in the UK that restaurants should sort of be on the National Health. “I can buy lamb chops for £3.50, so why do I have to pay £15.50 in a restaurant and then, bloody hell, leave a tip on top of that?” is a frequent cry that resonates with the public. It is time that guide books stopped pandering to it.
Rousing stuff! But which guide books? Certainly never Harden’s (nor, for that matter any others we can think of). What is this all about?
Did she read our release? It specifically pointed out that the ‘perfect storm’ – which we’d supposedly made such an attention-grabbing point of – was caused by cost pressures which were driving up prices, not restaurateurs’ greed.
Even though the number of openings (107) over the past 12 months is evidently, according to Harden's, the lowest since the year 2000 (102), the editors do concede that the quality and independence of restaurant newcomers is encouraging.
We didn’t ‘concede’ anything, we reported the numbers! There is nothing 'evident' at all about the opening statistics. These are known (or ‘evident’) only because Harden’s – uniquely – collects and publish them (and has done for two decades).
I completely agree and would add that the variety, verve, singularity and pluckiness of some of them make eating out in London continue to be, if not a bargain, extremely rewarding. It is also noted that on the level of restaurant closings, current economic difficulties have had remarkably little effect. The conviviality and ease of eating out is a habit that once ingrained is hard to eradicate.
Fay has at least read the upbeat numbers on restaurant closings but buries them somewhat, presumably because it doesn’t fit with the narrative of Harden’s as villains.
For obvious reasons, restaurant guides tend not to include the pop-ups, part-time restaurants, supper clubs, loft projects, trucks, diners, stalls, pit barbecues and so forth that are bringing succour and fun to fooding (as the French have neologised food and feeling). Guides also cannot factor in the effect of bookings sites that on a daily basis offer cut-price deals and two-for-ones that have become a significant part of making eating out a treat that can be afforded more than occasionally.
This is – perhaps uniquely in the article – an intellectually interesting point.
Even the Hardens backtrack on the mortal danger they imply is overtaking us when they explain that the modest increase in restaurant prices last year means that in the two years taken together, the cost increase of eating out is 4.5 per cent per annum.
Even the Harden’s? All we did was point out that we'd had a year of very high restaurant price inflation, and said it should be seen in the context of relatively subdued inflation the previous year. (We believe it’s a concept, considered old-fashioned in some circles, called ‘balance’.)
In their list of notable openings of the year, they include Brawn in Bethnal Green, where you might spend quite a lot less than £45, and Pollen Street Social in Mayfair, where you will spend quite a lot more, so go figure.
London restaurants operate at various price points. Go figure what?
Anyone daft enough to stray into the provinces or to other European countries will find that London offers a banquet of eating-out choice plus easygoing, unassertive hours and generally more pleasure for your pound than elsewhere.
Zzzzzzzzz. And who would be more pleased to celebrate this cornucopia that the people who publish what many people think as the best guide on the subject? Curiously Mrs M didn’t bother to develop one of the main points of our release: how much better London’s restaurants have got of late.