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How can Surrey’s restaurants win over Jay Rayner and other national critics?

PUBLISHED: 06:15 10 February 2015 | UPDATED: 08:38 09 March 2016

Observer restaurant critic Jay Rayner heads to Surrey to share his dining hell (Photo: Bellw West)

Observer restaurant critic Jay Rayner heads to Surrey to share his dining hell (Photo: Bellw West)

Archant

As Jay Rayner heads to our county to share his restaurant nightmares, Matthew Williams speaks to The Observer critic to find out why he’s never been the biggest fan of the Surrey dining scene – and whether anything can be done about it

Originally published in Surrey Life magazine February 2015

***

It’s fair to say that last time restaurant critic du jour, Jay Rayner, wrote about the Surrey dining scene, he was less than complimentary.

At the end of 2012, he opined in the Observer about “the miserable sods who live surrounded by manicured lawns and carriage-drive garlanded houses” and how our county’s “staggeringly dull” restaurant offering had him falling asleep at the keyboard.

There was, however, a beacon in the gloom: as well as Drake’s at Ripley and a handful of gastropubs, there was now Stovell’s in Chobham, which had an “instinct for the dirtier, baser things in food.”

Now, it is, of course, a generalisation to tarnish Surrey’s whole restaurant scene as some kind of beige, but there remains a truth to Rayner’s words. Having been a restaurant critic for over a decade and written reviews of well over 700 establishments, his is also a voice to be listened to.

Surrey Life had reviewed Fernando and Kristy Stovell’s then new restaurant only the month before and had also been impressed by the passion and fire at work. Indeed, it’s since gone on to win restaurant of the year at the 2014 Surrey Life Food and Drink Awards.

While our regular readers will know that Stovell’s is by no means the only bright spark for foodies around, there have been a number of occasions over the years where overzealous landlords have lapped up the promises of the High Street ‘chain gang’ and ended the dreams of inspiring local chefs.

There’s also been plenty of excellent restaurants that have bafflingly struggled to get people through the door…

Dining hell

So, when I found out that Jay is heading to Farnham Maltings at the end of February with his tales of restaurant nightmares, I figured it was as good a time as any to catch-up and get to the bottom of his critique – and, hopefully, discover some light at the end of the tunnel.

“It’s surprising that often the restaurants in the area that do strive for something new just don’t seem to get the support they deserve,” Jay tells me when I call him.

“Let’s be honest here; Surrey is a generally affluent place and so that’s especially surprising. I suspect, although I have no evidence of this, that big houses and nice kitchens have a part to play. Many of the people restaurants hope to attract just don’t go out enough after a day commuting.

“The proximity to the city doesn’t help in other ways. When you’ve got a city that has some of world’s most exciting established and upcoming restaurants only half an hour train ride away, you maybe have to do something extra special to keep people local.

“To be successful, any ambitious restaurant has to make sure they are filling the quiet week days – weekends tend to sell themselves even outside the city. That, often, isn’t happening.”

One of the other problems, he suggests, has been the rise in sophistication of the mid-market chains.

“Not only are their menus more attractive to the average diner now, but the Jamie’s Italians, Cotes, ASKs etc are also on top of where they’d like new venues and what the rents in that area are looking like.

“Obviously, a landlord seeing the package they can offer is often going to go with that, rather than take the risk with an independent. I never blame anyone for wanting to make money but it becomes self-perpetuating, raises the rents across the board and locks out the smaller businesses.

“Maybe local councils could do more to encourage the start-up end of the restaurant spectrum, but I know they’ve often got their hands tied as far as getting the best rates.”

Future for foodies

It can’t all be doom and gloom though, surely? There must be some way to usurp this restaurant mafia…?

“Well, often the best route for young chefs is still to take on a local pub,” says Jay. “They usually get a little more freedom and also get a regular revenue stream from the bar. While they have to balance the books, of course, I think some people forget what drove their original ideas and aim for the middle road a little too quickly. The early days can be tough but it’s when people break through with passion intact that you often get something really special.”

Sometimes criticised for his lack of out-of-London reviews (and, of course, the same is said of most ‘national’ reviewers), Jay’s exploration further afield usually fits around his television filming schedule – or, as with Farnham, his on-the-road shows at theatres.

“I only ended up at Stovell’s because I was meeting a friend who was spending the day in Guildford,” he admits. “But I’m very glad I did. Now, have you got anywhere in Farnham you’d recommend?” he laughs.

“I don’t have a hard and fast set of rules about what makes a great restaurant and always welcome chefs to send me their menus – although no invites please, as I prefer to be incognito at least until I’m through the door. I’ve previously said my main test for judging how good a place is: did writing about the restaurant make me hungry?”

While most of us are searching for the best restaurants to enjoy a meal at, Jay’s Farnham show actually looks at the negative side of things. Surprisingly, after all those amazing meals, it turns out that one of the main things he’s learnt in his past decade of reviewing is that people veritably feast on a bad review.

So, has he suffered any Surrey horror shows recently, I wonder?

“Not recently, no.”

Well, there’s hope for us yet…

***

Your restaurant recommendations

If there's a restaurant in your village or town that you'd like to see given the Surrey Life treatment (or, indeed, passed on to Jay), let us know by e-mailing matthew.williams@surreylife.co.uk or contacting us on social media.

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