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Egon Ronay

Egon Ronay, Hungarian-born restaurateur, food critic and restaurant guide compiler, died on 12 June 2010. He was 94…

…probably. Ronay was notoriously coy about revealing his age. The Independent‘s obituary, written by Paul Levy – who admits to having had a tiff with Ronay in the late 1990s – notes that Wikipedia appears to be the only source of a date of birth (24 July 1915). Ronay’s family were well-to-do:

Ronay’s grandfather “built a 120-room hotel in Pöstyén, Northern Hungary, in 1910” he says, and the profession “was continued by my father, who owned and ran five of the best restaurants in Budapest between the two wars.” These included the fashionable Hangli, one of Budapest’s celebrated garden restaurants. His father, he never tired of telling interviewers, was “Budapest’s fifth-highest taxpayer”; the family was seriously wealthy – and he was an only child.

According to The Times, he soon found his way into the family business, albeit by a route that was surely not what the Ronays had in mind:

Had war not intervened, it was intended that he should read law at Trinity Hall, Cambridge. Instead he stayed in Budapest and enlisted in the non-combatant Hungarian mounted artillery, in which he held the rank of cadet sergeant. At the end of the war Ronay reopened his father’s principal restaurant, using a sack of ersatz coffee abandoned by the fleeing Germans, even while the streets of Pest were being cleared of the bodies of men and horses.

The Times and the Daily Telegraph both tell the story of Ronay’s decision, after his parents’ restaurants were nationalised without compensation, to leave Budapest in 1946 – with the help of the Mayor of Budapest. Here’s the Telegraph version:

Events conspired to put an end to this plan [of going into the family business] when, after the war, the Russians confiscated the family business and left the Ronays penniless. Egon decided to emigrate. It took some time to obtain the necessary documents and it was thanks to the mayor of Budapest that he obtained his exit visa. The mayor was a friend of his who could drink as much as he liked, but because of a liver condition, never got drunk. Nothing impressed the Russians more and it was in this way that the mayor persuaded the commanding general to sign Ronay’s visa.

As The Guardian relates, Ronay arrived in the UK (where he’d already been apprenticed at the Dorchester Hotel in London before the war) and rapidly reached some important conclusions about British restaurant culture:

Soon after arriving, Ronay was shocked to see how sugar was dispensed in a buffet at Victoria Station – with a teaspoon on a string next to the tea-urn, to be left for the next user. He also quickly came to appreciate how the British class system served to suppress the discerning palate: “The first thing I discovered was that public school food was abominable and its victims were taught to be uncomplaining. And the product of that system was the British customer. They had no taste for food and the restaurateur had no audience to play to. His customer was an object of contempt. And British food got the reputation it deserved.” Ronay realised that his catering mission to London was obvious.

Ronay opened the Marquee restaurant in 1952, opposite the side entrance of Harrod’s, and rapidly attracted the attention of Fanny Cradock – as Paul Levy acerbically comments in The Independent:

Fanny Cradock, then the Daily Telegraph’s food writer, spotted a soul-mate. A liar (she was a double bigamist when she finally married Johnny), self-invented food expert who knew even less about food than Ronay, and had hard-core suburban taste, she called the Marquee “London’s most food-perfect small restaurant,” got Ronay to join her “Brains Trust” flying circus, where Fanny and Johnny toured the country giving cookery demonstrations, preceded by what the three of them regarded as “highbrow discussions” about food and wine. When Cradock defected to the Daily Mail in 1954 Ronay took over the Daily then Sunday Telegraph slot for six years. He continued to own the Marquee until 1955 – the ethical standards of journalism being different in those days.

The Telegraph sees Ronay’s stint with the newspaper as sowing the seeds of his big idea:

The response was so enthusiastic that, in 1957, he decided to create a restaurant guide, publishing it himself so he could express his views without compromise. At first it was a shoestring affair. He and an inspector would travel around Britain in his car for weeks at a time eating four meals a day. “We would go to the first restaurant at 12.15pm. One of us would order a four-course meal and the other one would say he had a bad stomach and take only one course. Then we would lunch at another place at two o’clock and reverse the roles. And then we did exactly the same for dinner.”

The obituarists’ opinions of Egon Ronay’s guides vary. Predictably, the Telegraph praises them:

Egon Ronay’s Guide did catch the imagination of a new generation of restaurant-goers who aspired to something better than glutinous egg mayonnaise followed by overcooked meat and soggy vegetables, and played an important part in raising culinary standards and curing the British of their traditional philistinism about food.

But, in Paul Levy’s view:

by the 1980s, his guides were distinctly old hat. They had been superseded at the higher level by the red Michelin Guide to Britain, and at the lower by the users’-democracy of the Good Food Guide.

And Tom Jaine adds in a personal view on the Guardian‘s obituary:

The Ronay guides themselves were tedious. (…) An entry might have been written in Linear Script B for all the information it gave beyond the recitation of colourless fact. Chefs and proprietors would contemplate for hours their allotted six lines of prose to disinter any hint of a value judgment. Criticism of clientele, locale or decoration was evidently out of bounds to his copywriters.

Nevertheless, the guides flourished, aided by Ronay’s legendary insistence on paying for any meal he ever ate, although sponsorship helped pay for the notoriously expensive business of producing a guide-book (The Times):

Financially, the project was made viable only because the Ford motor company took several pages of advertising, and Ronay sought sponsorship and advertising ever afterwards. That this compromised his independence of judgment, though, was scarcely ever suggested and never by those who knew him. Ronay accepted advertising, but never from establishments featured in his books. Sponsorship came from a succession of businesses with varied connections with the tourism and eating out that the books promoted, but never from concerns that his professional inspectorate might have in their sights. He boasted that he never accepted free meals, even from friends in the business.

What probably ensured his place in the affections of the British people was his attempt to improve the institutional food offerings of motorway service stations, airports and railway stations, as The Guardian points out:

Every meal was eaten anonymously: he “never even accepted a glass of brandy” without paying, and the integrity of the project was a source of fierce pride. Indeed, where standards of mass catering were concerned, it was also a source of fierce anger: the guides had the effect “of telling people that they could no longer get away with murder – because I would expose them”. Motorway service stations joined railways as a particular target of his ire for the “pigswill” routinely purveyed.

Tom Jaine agrees:

The targets were the softest of the soft, but they needed a sharp jab in the stomach if they were ever going to get better. He delivered multiple blows to motorway service stations, airlines and airports, and the nation stands in his debt. They may still be dreadful, but without him they would be worse.

(Egon Ronay, born 24 June 1915(?) in Budapest, died 10 July 2009 in Yattendon, Berkshire)