A short history of the Trencherman’s Guide

The birth of the Trencherman’s Guide in 1992 came in the wake of one of the most exhilarating periods in British cooking.

The country hotel was coming into its own and pioneers such as George Perry- Smith of the Hole In The Wall at Bath had inspired a generation of talented South West chefs including Joyce Molyneux (The Carved Angel), Stephen Markwick (Bistro 21) and Stephen Ross (The Queensberry Hotel).

The Eighties’ obsession with epicurean exploration had resulted in a tribe of affluent foodies prepared to travel long distances to seek out hotels with a gastronomic reputation – many of which were in the South West.

‘We saw a resurgence of good cooking in this country with more and more restaurants of quality emerging,’ says Kit Chapman, whose hotel, The Castle in Taunton, received its first Michelin star in 1984. It was one of only 14 outside of London.

While much press coverage had centred on the capital, Kit and the then owner of Dartmoor’s Gidleigh Park, Paul Henderson, were keen to demonstrate that superb food wasn’t solely a London phenomenon.

The Michelin-starred hoteliers hit upon the idea of providing discerning diners with a directory of the most exquisite places to eat out in the South West.

‘We got together to say “hey, it’s happening in the West Country too”,’ says Kit. ‘In fact, per head of population at the time, we had more decent restaurants than anywhere except London.’

The first guide, published by the West Country Tourist Board, celebrated the 25 top restaurants in the region.

‘The Eighties’ obsession with epicurean exploration had resulted in a tribe of affluent foodies prepared to travel long distances to seek out hotels with a gastronomic reputation’

The rigid entry criteria (based on ratings in the Good Food Guide, Michelin Guide and the Egon Ronay Guide) meant that only 25 restaurants and hotels made it into the first edition.

This strict vetting process – a tradition that continues to this day – was one of the guide’s biggest attractions, according to Rick Stein.

‘From day one it was a guide that I believed in because I knew the restaurants and hotels included in it were the best we had in the West Country,’ he says. ‘We were all desperate to find a guide that had teeth.’

Some of the first entrants (The Bath Priory, The Queensberry Hotel, Gidleigh Park, The Horn Of Plenty and The Seafood Restaurant) have remained in the guide and at the culinary heart of the South West. However, it’s testament to a burgeoning gastronomic scene that the 26th edition features over 160 restaurants with a plethora of dining styles.

Gidleigh Park

From the starched white linen of smart hotels to dog-and-welly-friendly dining pubs, each venue throws the spotlight on the South West’s trailblazing chefs and producers.

‘Food has become much more democratic,’ says Kit, who predicted in his 1989 book, Great British Chefs, that the British pub would play a key role in the foodie renaissance.

‘One doesn’t worship at the shrine of three Michelin star restaurants any more. These days you can eat wonderfully in some marvellous pubs.’

Over the years the Trencherman’s Guide has supported and created a community of like-minded chefs and restaurateurs. Rick Stein, who has cooked at six Trencherman’s launch lunches, remembers getting nervous about cooking for his discerning peers.

‘We always have great lunches and it was a privilege to cook for the rest of the members – and quite nerve-racking. The great thing, of course, is getting all the chefs in the West Country together and informally working out ways to promote the region.’

Salt Media was asked to take over the guide in 2009 (as a result of publishing the South West’s leading food magazine) and has substantially developed the brand, including introducing social media, a website, Trencherman’s Awards and fortnightly email newsletters that keep foodies abreast of exclusive offers, special events, competitions and recipes from the member restaurants.

The annual Trencherman’s Awards highlight the superb culinary experiences to be had in the region. More than 25,000 South West diners vote for their favourite restaurants, dining pubs and foodie hotels with winners announced at incredible dinners cooked by the guide’s members.

Trencherman’s chairman Michael Caines says: ‘Since the first edition in 1992, the number of Trencherman’s entries has grown six-fold, demonstrating just how much the region has taken off in terms of the quantity and quality of high-calibre dining.

‘Trencherman’s continues to play a vital role for discerning customers who want only the best – and once you’ve tasted exceptional food, you simply don’t want to go back.

‘I feel very proud that the South West continues to be in the vanguard when it comes to world-class dining and that the guide helps foodies across the region and beyond discover that.’