Eat Out Top 10 Restaurant Awards 2011 changes its menu!

I had heard from a chef a while ago that the Eat Out Top 10 Restaurant Awards will be changed this year, in that all the judges have been let go, and that new judging categories will be added for the annual evaluation. 

I received confirmation of the judging change directly from one of the judges, Anna Trapido telling me spontaneously that she had been “fired” from her one-year tenure as one of the four Eat Out judges.  Long-term judges Pete Goffe-Wood and Arnold Tanzer have been let go too, leaving Eat Out editor Abigail Donnelly as the sole judge to choose the elite Top 10 chefs of the country.  The problem with this of course is that every restaurant worth its salt knows what she looks like, and will be expecting her visit if they expect to be on the Top 20 shortlist.  Every restaurant kitchen probably has her photograph, in anticipation of her visit! 

The Eat Out judging change announcement was made in the Eat Out newsletter last week, and there is no mention of the ex-judges, nor is their past contribution acknowledged.  Ms Donnelly writes: “It’s a very big responsibility, but I’m looking forward to the challenge.  Through the year, I make an effort to visit restaurants more than once, so to get the most balanced view possible.  It’s also of the utmost importance for me to get to know the chefs behind the food and find out what their philosophies are”, she wrote.  What exactly she means when she writes that “I won’t be judging for my peers.  I will be judging with knowledgeable foodies in mind.  The people who are actually dining out at Top 10 restaurants on a regular basis”  is unclear. This makes one worry – was Ms Donnelly judging to satisfy her fellow judges in the past, and what would have made their taste in and evaluation of restaurants different to that of the ‘foodies’ she writes about?   This begs the question as to the comparability of the Awards outcome in November this year, compared to that of all previous years.

A further uncertainty is exactly what Ms Donnelly means when she writes about a further judging change: “…the awards are going to be much more inclusive and will celebrate the best Asian, steakhouse, Italian, bistro and country-style restaurants.  The awards are no longer only about the celebration of fine-dining establishments.  It’s very important that the fabulous specialist eateries dotted around the country are given the recognition they deserve.”  It was not clear from the newsletter if the restaurant types mentioned by her will each attract awards for the best in each category, or if all of these styles will compete with fine-dining restaurants.  One would also have liked to see recognition for the best South African-style restaurant, for the Restaurant that is most environmentally responsible in its sourcing, handling and disposal of food, and for the Restaurant with the best Menu. 

In addition to announcing the Top 10 Restaurant list, as well as the Top Restaurant, Top Chef, and Top Service, the following categories will be added: Best New Restaurant of the Year, and Most Stylish Establishment in the Country.  This could cause some compromises, as we saw in the 2009 Awards, when Bizerca won in a newly created Bistro category that year, and fell off the Top 10 list.  It also would be easier for Nobu at the One&Only Cape Town, for example, to win Top Asian restaurant, when it should really be a contender in the more competitive Top 10 Restaurant award.

To gain clarification, we sent Ms Donnelly some questions, and her response time was impressive, especially as she was ill. 

Why the change in judging?

The time to include the voices of our audiences felt right. Everything we do is informed by our network of 30+ national food critics, as well as our (very vocal) online audience of over 70 000. They deliver consistent feedback about their dining experiences throughout the year. As such it is not only my experience that will inform the top 10 list, but also the voices of these Eat Out fans.  
Does it not signal a vote of no confidence in your ex fellow judges?
No. I have great respect for their knowledge and experience and would have no hesitation to work with any of them again.

Does it allow consistency with previous awards?
Absolutely. Consistency will always be key – it’s what our brand is about. Whether the judging is done by one person or ten people, it’s a subjective process. I am however judging restaurants according to criteria and a scorecard. 

Please can you explain how you will cater for the non fine-dining restaurants in the awards?  
Our new award categories are more inclusive – and allows for more non-fine dining restaurants to be recognized. Best steakhouse, Best bistro, Best Italian restaurant, Best Asian restaurant and Best country-style restaurant along with Best new restaurant will celebrate restaurants that will probably not be categorized as fine dining. These eateries make up the bulk of our database of restaurants, as well as the places most frequented by our consumers.

How will you choose your shortlist?
I will be looking at all the specific categories and then shortlist restaurants. Together with our reviewers and online users I will determine who is consistently shining. In the Asian category, I’ll consider places serving anything from sushi to Thai, from inner city to harbour edge. In the Italian category, family-run trattorias to ultra modern pizzerias. Steakhouses to be considered might focus on serving the best-aged or grass fed meat. The best bistro will be a restaurant that is doing something more than casual but just not too fine dining. The country style eatery will be tucked away, off the beaten track, where there is cooked with care and generosity. The best new restaurant will be awarded to a restaurant that has opened its doors in 2011. Thank you so much for taking the time and interest in this. Hoping to hear your voice come through in the top 10 too!

Ms Donnelly and her Eat Out Top 10 Restaurant Awards will be closely watched, no doubt, as no restaurant likes change if it could disadvantage them.  However, it does sound as if the awards will be more inclusive than in the past, and the additional categories give a lot more restaurants a chance of winning recognition at the awards.  There will be many keen chefs holding thumbs that Ms Donnelly will grace their restaurant tables in the next few months!

Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio:  Twitter: @WhaleCottage

13 replies on “Eat Out Top 10 Restaurant Awards 2011 changes its menu!”

  1. Kobus says:

    Judging by the boring predictability of ms Donnelly’s writings for Woolworths’ taste magazine, and her “quirky” choice of flavour combinations (for lack of a kinder choice of words and in attempt to avoid being rude), I think we are in for a riot.

    I forsee serious problems, the least of which would be the input of insiders with knowledge of the industry (i.e. Tanzer and Goffe Wood) as well as the complete lack of an erudite style of writing (Trapido’s major contribution.)

    Do the publishers care? I doubt so- all they are interested in, is sales, and as we all know very well by know, the local press sells on $h*t and scandals.

  2. Alton van Biljon says:

    Great news! As industry we are only too pleased for greater clarity in judging citeria and an open playing field for all styles of restaurants. The “best restaurant” is not necessarily the one with the most expensive menu or largest wine list, but rather a restaurant that achieves that intangible element of allowing guests to relax while being able to interact with those around them as they explore the food-wine experience. Thank you Abigail.

  3. Dear Kobus and Alton

    What contradictory points of view on the new Eat Out Top 10 Restaurant Awards 2011 from the two of you!

    I agree with you Alton, and wish Dash the very best of luck in the Best New Restaurant category. The ultimate prize remains the Top 10 list however. It will be interesting to see how the industry reacts to the changes.

    I am not a regular reader of Taste Kobus, so I cannot comment on its recipes.

    There have been radical changes with the Eat Out Awards in the past, especially when the late Lannice Snyman was replaced. It allowed for a fresh set of restaurants to be recognised, and even caused some of the regular past winners to drop off the Top 10 list, e.g. Le Quartier Francais.


  4. Kobus says:

    My apologies, Alton & Chris- but I can’t help but to disagree. Idon’t think there wil be any more clarity on judging criteria, and as for the input of the general public, one but has to look at Food24’s reader reviews to realize what a mess this is going to be to sort out.

    I do agree that the “best” restaurant, in the end, is merely an opinion- but I prefer informed opinion, not ignorance. I’d love to exactly why Trapido, Goffe Wood and Tanzer were let go, and I suspect it has very little to do with any of the reasons Donnelly offered in her response.

  5. Daniel says:

    While it is welcome to have Bistro’s etc rated for their place in the category of restaurant they represent, the top 10 should be just that, the 10 finest restaurants in SA showing amazing food, wines and fantastic service to a true International standard.

    If the top ten does not include the likes of Luke, Margot and George then the plot has gone off course – NB Have not been to Dash yet, must go soon, friends say it’s superb.

  6. Dash is excellent Daniel – the best restaurant in Cape Town, in my opinion.


  7. Dear Kobus

    Have you looked at the Eat Out reviews? Are they in a better state than those on Food24?

    I also find it interesting that the three judges are no longer part of the Eat Out Restaurant Awards. Pete Goffe-Wood is a popular chef in Cape Town, and it must have been hard for him to not be influenced by this. He was instantly recognisable too, of course.


  8. darren says:

    People shouldnt really look at this mag as a definitive judging platform for the best resturants in RSA, just ask around, go on the blogs, read twitter and chose for yourself.

    This publication has always been all style no substance and really at the end of the day who cares, let her build her empire and dont allow us to be told by one person or one publication what the best 10 places are to eat in RSA.

  9. I respect your view Darren (from Hout Bay).

    For restaurants an Eat Out Award is first prize, and nothing comes close to it. It is vital to their existence and income.


  10. darren says:

    Hi Chris (from Germany, Camps Bay and other places)

    The reason nothing comes close to it is because there is no other alternative for the normal (non social network) client to get information.

    I really wonder of your comment is based on anecdotal evidence or true fact.

    If you look at some restaurants that are full every night that dont appear in the top 10 such as Magica Roma, Saigon, Kitima etc etc what they would say about that.

    Did Ginger close because it fell out of the top 10 i wonder, Is Aubergine, Overture etc only doing well because they are in the top 10 i doubt it, bizerca got into the top 10 and now closes on a saturday because there are few customers etc

    I just think that people shouldnt get too caught up in the power of one magazine, im sure you can suggest 5 places that should have been in the top 10 that are not, and it is pretty scary that one person can claim to have so much influence, hey maybe she should apply for mayor of Joburg 🙂


    Darren from Hout Bay,i am not or have never claimed to be Darren Roberts chef from some place some where in the winelands

  11. Hi Darren from Hout Bay!

    Your example of Bizerca demonstrates the power of the Eat Out Awards. For me it is not about the book, but the list that is announced at the gala dinner. It is about the honour and prestige. Most top chefs will say it does not matter to them. But it is good for the restaurant bottom line!


  12. Pam McOnie says:

    Hi Chris. The change in the judging concerns me. I can only agree with the opinion above that the choices should be an informed decision by those who really understand food. In addition it should be a panel in order to be subjective. With one person deciding (even after referring to the reviews online) it will not be as subjective, as ultimately the final choice will rest with her. I believe that the credibility that has been built over so many years by the Eat Out Top 10 will no longer be there. Perhaps that now leaves room for a new judging system to step in and become the definitive guide to eating out in this country. So, perhaps we are in for interesting times. With warm regards Pam

  13. What intrigues me Pam is why the change was made in the first place. It is not motivated by Eat Out. Pete Goffe-Wood and Arnold Tanzer have been part of the judging panel for years already. There was never any talk about them not being honourable in their judging.

    Any new judging scheme would be years behind Eat Out, in having to establish itself from scratch. Rossouw’s Restaurants is the closest that there is to an alternative, but I don’t think it is taken seriously any more.

    Everyone knows how easy it is to post false reviews of restaurants on sites like Eat Out, so it is not always the 100% correct picture for someone like Abigail to look at.


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