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Simon's blog: Call me simple

Twenty years ago I had a job that involved eating in restaurants and getting paid for it.


Not the worst way to earn a living, the AA Restaurant Guide employed a couple of dozen inspectors of which I was one with a job description that mandated eating lunch and dinner 3 or 4 days every week in restaurants across the UK. Later I became the Editor which had the additional advantage that I could pretty much decide for myself which ones I personally wanted to assess. In short, during the late 90s and early 2000s I ate at many of the most celebrated restaurants in the country, at somebody else’s expense and I got paid for it. Sometimes you get lucky. I could spend some time here taking the gloss off; eating alone loses it’s appeal after a while no matter how good the food, and for every outstanding meal there were at least as many mediocre or worse but I’m not holding out much hope for sympathy.

The AA Restaurant Guide was part of a trinity of restaurant guides that dominated the market back then. There was Michelin of course, also professionally inspected but heavily focussed on a couple of hundred  “fine dining” restaurants and then the much more inclusive Good Food Guide, fuelled largely by reader feedback rather then a paid inspectorate and a much more useful and democratic guide for the ordinary punter (and hence the market leader in terms of sales). At the AA we were trying to create some kind of synthesis of the two but it never really happened as the always tenuous business model of the paper guides was soon washed away by the internet tide of user reviews - for better or worse depending on your viewpoint and the thickness of your skin.

The Good Food Guide published its last paper edition in 2020 but recently reappeared in online only form. It has a special place in the history of eating out in the UK and anyone who was in the trade during it’s heyday will testify to the excitement and trepidation around its annual publication date. The Four Seasons restaurant in Nantgaredig; the cowshed converted into a country restaurant by Maryann’s family, where our journey in food began, featured almost from its inception to its close in 2004. Every autumn signalled a period nervous anticipation climaxing in the GFG’s arrival and a frenzied reading of the 300 or so words delivering the verdict that would stand for the next 12 months.

These reflections tumbled through my mind as I revisited a 1969/70 edition of the Good Food Guide that I picked up a few years ago in a secondhand shop. As a snapshot of eating out in that time it’s a real treasure. Naturally I sought out the Welsh entries - then irritatingly lumped in with England, whereas Scotland, Ireland and Channel Islands are granted their own sections. Wales merits only a smattering of entries, mostly dotted along the necklace of the Welsh coastline, predominantly hotel dining rooms with a startling number it seems run by ex-members of the British military. “Major Westworth runs the bars” at the New Inn, Llanbadaryn Fynydd and “you are made welcome by Commander and Mrs Hindley- Smith at the Pen-Y-Bont inn Llanrwst (where “the Commander serves the Bordeaux lovingly”) for example. The language is headmasterly and from this distance at least, fabulously entertaining in it’s sniggering condescension towards a Welsh food culture that it’s clear many contributors consider primitive in it’s failure to scale the culinary heights of the duck a l’orange, tournedos rossini and lobster thermidors that dominate the menus of those places deemed worthy of inclusion in the guide.

Carmarthenshire at the turn of 70s is, in the guide’s view almost free of anywhere recommendable, one of the few exceptions being Restaurant Vienna in Llanelli worthy of celebration it seems for being “Well above the local level” and “run by an Austro-German couple” who offer “quite an elaborate a la carte…including various schnitzels”. I wish I’d had the chance to go - amongst all the cartoonish pomposity and endless spluttering lamentations on the feeble selection of clarets on the wine lists of Wales, there are some entries I’d really like to travel back and visit.

The early Walnut Tree, Llandewi Skirrid is in there with Franco and Ann Taruschio in the infancy of their legendary tenure and not escaping censure, particularly for the “uncomfortable bar with their ‘Bistro Menu” which is not a menu but just what they feel like cooking that day”.Well that’ll do me just fine. As would the sprinkling of entries that are treated to a generous pat on the head and a patricianly smile for serving up “wholesome” “mostly well-cooked” soups, roasts, pies and puddings summed-up in an Anglesey entry as “dinners that are tailored to what local customers want and can afford, so the menu is simple”. Simple food for simple people - you can count me in.

(Simple) Simon