So the Old Vicarage at Ridgeway is one of the unlucky 13 in Britain which has lost the Michelin star, held since 1998 and the only one in Sheffield. It made front page news in the Sheffield Telegraph. But how much does it really matter?
True, it must be a bitter disappointment to chef-patron Tessa Bramley and her long-term chef Nathan Smith, who has been there for every starry year. They are most probably the victim of changing fashions rather than falling standards because reviews of the food have been mostly good or excellent although service is reportedly wobbly.
Chefs at the top of their profession crave stars but they probably mean more in terms of kudos with their fellow chefs than to the average diner. Relatively few people read the Michelin Guide, certainly not in comparison to the Good Food Guide and Hardens, compiled from public reports rather than food inspectors.
It may be difficult to the public to appreciate how much stars mean to chefs and how they feel when they lose them. French chef Bernard Loiseau shot himself in 2003 when he thought, wrongly, he had lost one of his three stars at the Cote d’Or in Saulieu. I have eaten there, sat next to his widow Dominique, and enjoyed the signature dish of frogs legs, garlic and parsley. Gordon Ramsay is said to have wept when he lost two stars at his New York restaurant, The London.
On the other hand, Skye Gyngell handed back her star at her café in a garden centre, Petersham Nurseries, because diners drawn there by the publicity expected glitzier surroundings. And in Sheffield Marcus Lane, who then owned Rafters, felt his Bib Gourmand (just below a star) put undue pressure on the kitchen and asked not to be considered the following year.
There is no doubt that winning a star brings customers. But that can mean more staff and more costs in keeping up the standards – and pricier food to match. Conversely, losing can cost. Forbes magazine quotes studies showing that dropping a star can halve sales. More than one restaurant has won a star and gone bust. There’s another factor. Michelin stars tend to turn restaurants into pricy, over-formal, reverential temples of food where people speak in hushed voices when eating should be a lively, gregarious, convivial and sensuous experience.
It is some years since I have eaten at the Old Vic, and then we had the night to ourselves, for my editor at the Sheffield Star felt few readers would be tempted by £40 a head lunches and £75 dinners. But it has been consistently good since I first went there (just six meals into my reviewing career!) shortly after it entered the Good Food Guide 27 years ago.
I have even cooked there. Once, for a story, I was a commis chef for the night (the lowest of the low) cooking samphire and vegetables to go with an amuse of cods cheeks. Tessa, on the pass, sent one of my plates back three times before judging it good enough. She was a kind but strict taskmistress. I was terrified there might be a food critic in that night!
Like any good restaurant, stories about the Old Vic abound. In the early days Tessa’s son Andrew, nicknamed ‘Lurch,’ would open the restaurant door (you rang the bell) and look you up and down as if to judge your worth. There is the story, probably apocryphal, of the loud pub landlord out dining who asked for a bitter to which the reply was: “Would that be bitter lemon or Angostura, sir?”
My favourite is of the late Michael Winner, reviewing for the Sunday Times, who on visiting the gents noticed a bowl of strawberries. He reached to pick one then wondered about the personal hygiene of previous visitors and desisted. Winner wickedly made much of this in his report, taking the wee-wee so to speak, but gave a favourable review.
For the Old Vic, losing that star may be the end of an era but it is not the end of the world.