By Jon Clarke
WHILE working as a travel writer for the British national press, I never went anywhere without having slavishly poured over every article I could find on the place I was visiting and arriving at the airport loaded up with the latest guidebooks.
A major prerequisite for a successful holiday, it was also the only way I felt qualified to elegise about a city, resort of country.
When I moved to Andalucia a decade ago nothing had changed and I spent my early years getting to know the region intimately through my job as a journalist.
I never went anywhere without my copies of the Rough Guide and Lonely Planet, and restaurant guides including the Michelin and Gourmetour.
But I soon began to realise that even the highly-respected Michelin guide was unable to get near to finding all the exciting restaurants that were cropping up in every single town and village.
With allegedly just one inspector covering the whole region – as well as Murcia – it was clear he was hardly able to keep an eye on the existing places, let alone look for new ones.
Ultimately it gave me an idea to put together a book on the region’s restaurants.
Incredibly, the first time it had been done, Dining Secrets of Andalucia took me two years to put together and went on to sell thousands of copies around the world.
A comprehensive guide with over 100 hand-picked restaurants, my only rule was that they had to have been open for at least a year.
The project has now morphed into an interactive website of the same name, now religiously followed by thousands of serious foodies from Huelva to Almeria, many suggesting new places each week.
It is already doing well, having launched in January, but now it finds itself in danger from an even bigger threat for tourists attempting to find the best place to eat around Andalucia.
Since TripAdvisor came along a few years ago it has slowly ground down the internet.
Like any monopoly it is starting to dominate and dictate where most travellers eat.
Put in the name of any city and ‘best restaurant’ or ‘best hotel’ and expect to see often the first 10 listings – sometimes more – linked to TripAdvisor.
You are extremely unlikely to find any local, independent guides, or newspaper or magazine articles on the front page, apart from the ones that can afford to pay thousands of euros to get to the top of the page.
The truth is the website is skewed towards new places that have only recently been discovered – even opened – and sadly too many businesses get their friends to put up reviews.
In the four towns analysed, too many brand new places are making the Top Five… and to be honest the Top 30 restaurant picks for Andalucia are well wide of the mark.
While there is no doubt that a place like De Locos Tapas in Ronda is a great place to eat – I have tried it and enjoyed it – it does not deserve to be listed as ‘the best restaurant in Andalucia’, nor even Ronda.
The facts are the chef is from Bilbao, which is a good start, he has trained at various restaurants in Andalucia, including the Fairplay hotel in Benalup, and he knows a fair bit about cooking.
But he has only been open for four months and only has one other member of staff, for heaven’s sake.
Bottom line, if he is still churning it out in a year’s time and is still popular, then he will certainly deserve his place in Ronda’s Top Five… as for Andalucia’s Top Five, let’s wait and see.
Above all, it is really irritating to find diners criticising two-Michelin starred restaurants for being too expensive, when the same place in France or the UK costs double the price.
Then there are the joints that get a couple of ‘zero’ reviews, bringing down the average, for one of their waiters simply having an off night.
Much of it seems to boil down to the issue of service.
As one leading restaurateur tells us, it is all about ‘knowing how to play TripAdvisor’ and giving that smile at the front door always works, as, guess what, the Americans have always known.
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