Restaurant awards are on the menu

WALK into any restaurant these days and you’re frequently confronted by a wall covered with plaques and framed certificates, telling you how great the restaurant is. What do they all mean, if anything?

Adrian Cummins is chief executive of the Restaurant Association of Ireland (RAI). He cites a recent visit to a restaurant in the south. “The place is open a month and the guy had three plaques on his wall. And he hasn’t had a single inspection.”

He believes there are a number of schemes out there that aren’t actually award schemes at all, where all you have to do to display an ‘award’ is to buy the plaque.

Cummins himself oversees one of the largest restaurant award schemes in the country, the RAI’s Restaurant Association Awards. While these are based on a series of assessments and inspections, that’s not true of all of the accolades you’ll see.

Restaurant owners themselves have a conflicted attitude to these accolades. One midlands-based restaurateur says that though he displays a wide range of plaques on his walls, he struggles to see their value.

“One time, when you got an award, I would say it was well deserved and there was good judging criteria, nowadays there are a lot of pop-up awards. There are people writing articles about your restaurant, putting it up on a website and charging you €420 plus VAT and they’ll give you a plaque on the wall with the name of someone who hasn’t even been in the place. I’m not in favour of that.”

He singles out the RAI awards as credible and useful, not least because entrants are provided with detailed feedback on their performance.

Another Cork-based chef doesn’t have much time for most of the awards out there, but says that commercial pressure is such that if a neighbouring premises has bought the plaque, you’re better off buying it too.

“People come into a strange town, they go, ‘Oh, this place has such and such a plaque, we’ll go in there, it must be good’. So you must have it.”

Michelin Guide

Still the most prestigious of them all, any chef would give his right arm for a Michelin star. No Irish restaurant has achieved three stars, though Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud in Dublin has two. There are eight other Irish restaurants with a single star; four in Dublin, two in Kilkenny, one in Waterford and one in Galway. The Michelin reviewers, known in the company as ‘inspectors’, guard their identities as closely as superheroes, though one — a man named Pascal Remy — broke cover in 2004 to write a tell-all book. He maintained that standards had slipped and that the guide had become lax in its inspection routine. Remy’s revelations have done nothing to tarnish the image of the Michelin star, however, which remains the pre-eminent restaurant award across the globe.

McKenna’s Guides

John & Sally McKenna’s guides, 100 Best Restaurants in Ireland, has been appearing in print since 1992 though this year, it will appear as app and ebook only. This guide had been sponsored by Bridgestone for many years. When that relationship ended 18 months ago, the couple decided to go it alone under their own brand name. The judging is done by the McKennas, together with a panel of independent editors.

“Fundamentally,” says John McKenna, “what you’re looking for is someone who cooks with imagination and with creativity. We’re not interested in whether or not you’ve got deep pile carpets or a five-star sommelier. We have had restaurants in the 100 best over the years that have actually been in Nissen huts.”

All inspections are anonymous and paid for by the guide; there’s no cost associated with getting a listing. If, however, you do get in, you can buy a plaque for an undisclosed sum.

Blue Book

Not an award scheme as such, Ireland’s Blue Book is essentially the flagship marketing product of a loose association of Irish hotels and guesthouses. There are 41 properties in the 2013 edition of the Blue Book, with an additional four rental properties. Members are selected on a criteria basis with the emphasis being on properties that have a strong individualistic style and character and who are not members of hotel chains. Marquee names include Ballyfin Demesne in Co Laois, Ballymaloe House and Hayfield Manor, both in Co Cork, Castle Leslie Estate in Co Monaghan and Rathsallagh House in Co Wicklow.

Georgina Campbell

Campbell used to work for the Egon Ronay guide before that company closed in the late 1990s. Georgina Campbell’s Ireland, The Best of Irish Food and Hospitality goes beyond restaurants to include 1,800 businesses such as shops, hotels and restaurants.

“What we’re looking for first is genuine hospitality, a sense of welcome,” says Campbell. “Then, for food recommendations, we’re looking for good food of its type, local and seasonal where possible and cooked with care, and good menu knowledge from staff. We like to see provenance, with local producers and suppliers credited on menus, and we’re always looking for an honest approach to whatever area of the market you’re in.”

Inspections are on an anonymous basis and all bills are paid; inclusion is on merit only. Nor is there any cost involved in getting into the guide, but those who get in can pay for a plaque or for an upgraded billing on the website.

Irish Restaurant Awards

Run by the Restaurant Association of Ireland, the aim of this not-for-profit scheme is to improve the overall standards of restaurant and food establishments in Ireland.

County winners are selected by a locally-based panel of critics, and these go on to an All-Ireland series. At this point, premises are inspected by a ‘mystery guest’ who awards points out of 100. CEO of the association Adrian Cummins says these assessment sheets are made available to the premises afterwards.

There’s no cost to the restaurant of getting involved in the awards. If you get through to the All-Ireland series, you will have to provide a voucher for a free dinner for two which will be used by the inspector. Also, there’s a cost attached to attending the awards ceremony, though again there’s no necessity to attend in order to receive your award.

Irish Hospitality Awards

Run by Hospitality Ireland Magazine, the establishments nominate themselves for these awards. Then a long list is made up and circulated to in-house judges who award marks out of 10 following an anonymous visit. A shortlist of top scoring premises is then drawn up and each of these is visited by a judge. Criteria are quality, cost, efficiency, customer service, imagination, attention to detail, marketing and how well the establishment functions as a business.

There is no charge for entry, but it is a condition of entry that all winners buy a ticket to attend the presentation lunch. Here, the overall winners are announced and all winners are presented with two plaques, one indoor and one outdoor. The ticket price is €295 and covers the morning conference, lunch and drinks reception. There’s no extra charge for the plaques.

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