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Saturday, 01 November 2014

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Restaurant ratings could be up to you

Lots has been said and written over the past week about how hotels and restaurants are rated and grade, reviewed and ranked.Caramelised shallot tart(serves 4)

Undated Handout Photo of Caramelized Shallot

Should undercover inspectors, experts at knowing what goes where and how and whether it’s good or not, be the sole judges of what’s hot and what’s not; what’s worth a visit and paying good money for and what is to be avoided?

Or should we just go off the recommendations of friends and the say-so of those who can be bothered to write their own opinions on an online website?

Do you care if a restaurant has Michelin stars or that a hotel has four stars?

Or do you pay more attention to the comments from customers on Tripadvisor, Britain’ largest travel review website?

The Government has made its own recommendation on the issue: it is removing its official backing from the star system which it says is “out of date”.

John Penrose, the tourism minister, said: “The current ‘official’ rating systems are too often unreliable and unfair, not only for the industry but for the consumer too.

“We will encourage any rating schemes or customer websites that improve the quality of information which visitors can use to choose the right holiday for them, so they make informed choices, rather than discovering problems when it is too late.”

Cumbria’s hotel owners seem to agree. Jonathan Denby is chairman of the Lakes Hospitality Association which has 550 members made up of hoteliers, guesthouse and B&B owners and self-catering businesses.

Mr Denby, who owns four hotels, says the star rating system will still be run by the AA, though he can understand why more people are turning to websites such as Tripadvisor for reviews and recommendations.

“The star system doesn’t take into account the hospitality, the warm welcome, the special features of a hotel that the public like.

“My own view is that we really welcome the new trend towards customer-generated reviews. It keeps everyone on their toes.

“It can be terribly unfair, but that is a bit like condemning Wikipedia because someone hacks in occasionally.

“The question is, does the consumer have confidence in it – and 99 per cent of the reviews are genuine.

“If a place gets consistently bad reviews, they can either up their game or reconcile themselves to the fact that they will not get much business.

“I think these review sites have a really good effect on customer service and standards and business owners are upping their game,” adds Mr Denby.

Stephen Bore is co-owner of the acclaimed Overwater Hall near Bassenthwaite Lake, along with husband and wife team Angela and Adrian Hyde.

The small country hotel recently took sixth place in the Best British Hotels category in the annual Travellers’ Choice Awards run by TripAdvisor and was described by one TripAdvisor traveller as “simply outstanding”.

Next month Stephen will hear if it is shortlisted for a national title in the awards.

Unsurprisingly, he’s a fan of the Tripadvisor system, though he says it means hoteliers and restaurant owners are constantly kept on their toes to make sure what they offer is top class – which is good news for us customers.

“The stars are an old-fashioned system of judging hotels against each other,” he says.

“You can’t really beat someone’s personal recommendation and that is what Tripadvisor does.

“The Tripadvisor system could be open to abuse. I read other hotel reviews and I think ‘that sounds like it has been written by someone in the organisation’ or someone has written to put the boot in.

“But speaking from personal experience, I have not come across a review which has been disparaging about us.

“The reviews can raise people’s expectations and you then have to live up to those expectations and work harder, which is no bad thing.

“It keeps hoteliers on their toes and pressure on your work tends to be a positive thing.”

Mr Denby warns that hoteliers have to prepare themselves for hard work in the year ahead. Government cutbacks means there will be less support for them from tourism organisations and local authorities.

“It has been a very challenging December and January for the hotel trade in the Lakes,” he says.

“December’s business was decimated by the bad weather and it was probably the worst Christmas in living memory, though New Year was good on the whole.

“Overall, bookings for guest houses in the south Lakes is very challenging and people are fearful about how things are going to be in the rest of the season, particularly with the withdrawal of support from local authorities and Government.”

IF YOU’RE not staying in a top-class hotel this weekend, try this recipe for caramelised shallot tart that could be a lunch or a starter, from Italian TV chef Aldo Zilli.

Have it with a chilled glass of the Rio Bío Bío Sauvignon Blanc Pinot Grigio mentioned in the wine column.


750g small shallots, peeled and halved or quartered (depending on size)

2 garlic cloves, crushed

40g butter

1tbsp olive oil

20g light muscovado sugar

40ml brandy

1tsp fresh thyme

Salt and pepper to taste

1 sheet ready rolled puff pastry

1 egg, whisked (for egg wash)


1. Heat the oven to 180°C. In a large saucepan, add the olive oil and butter and put on to a fairly high heat. Once the butter has melted, add the shallots and garlic, and cook for five minutes, stirring occasionally.

2. Add the sugar and cook for five minutes. Add the brandy and thyme, and cook for another five minutes. Reduce the heat and cook for 10 more minutes. Season to taste.

3. Get a sheet of ready rolled pastry and cut two even, circular shapes. Put these circles on to a greaseproof paper lined baking tray.

4. Cut a border round the edge of the circles and prick the middle parts with a fork (to stop the middle from rising).

5. Spoon the onion mixture on to the middle of the two bases evenly.

Brush egg round the border of the pastry and place in the oven for 25 minutes. Remove from the oven and serve.


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