Renowned gastronome and food writer whose demanding standards forever changed diners' attitudes to eating out
EGON RONAY, who died on June 12, apparently aged 94, arrived in Britain a penniless refugee from Hungary and devoted the rest of his life to fighting the good fight against the horrors of postwar British cooking. When he arrived in London in 1946, Ronay was so appalled by British cuisine that he started his own restaurant. In the Fifties he founded the famous eating-out guides that bore his name and which awarded rosettes to the best establishments.
A scourge of greasy food and grimy hotels, he was initially perplexed by diners' stoical acceptance of their unappetising lot. The only explanation he could suggest was that public schools taught their charges to be uncomplaining: "diners 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 encouraged the British to abandon their "shy and apathetic" ways and speak out. "Outspoken criticism by everyone -- complaint as well as praise -- is the only way to get good food," he maintained.
And 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. It played an important part in raising culinary standards and curing the British of their traditional philistinism about food.
A small, dapper, rather vain man, Egon Ronay was famously coy about his age, claiming to have stopped counting when he reached 69. But he was probably born in 1915 in Budapest, Hungary, where his father, the fifth highest taxpayer in the city, owned five restaurants. An only child, Egon studied for a law degree but it was always a foregone conclusion that he would go into the family business, like his father and grandfather before him.
Events conspired to put an end to this plan 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.
On October 10, 1946, Ronay arrived in London, where a friend of his father's rescued him from destitution by appointing him manager of his restaurant -- Princes in Piccadilly. But outside one or two central London establishments, Ronay was appalled by the dismal standards of service in British restaurants and the British attitude to food and dining.
When he ordered a cup of tea at the buffet in Victoria station and asked for a spoon, the waitress pointed dismissively to a single teaspoon hanging on a piece of string attached to the ceiling.
He decided the British were a people in urgent need of education and, after a stint at the Carousel Club in St James's, borrowed £4,000 and bought a tea room near Harrods which he turned into a restaurant called the Marquee, intended as a showcase for haute cuisine. On the menu were dishes unknown to most Britons -- pate de campagne, matelote d'anguille and bouillabaisse.
The food writer Fanny Cradock paid a visit with her husband Johnny and described it as London's "most food-perfect" small restaurant in her column in The Daily Telegraph. Soon afterwards, her editor went for dinner and invited Ronay to join a 'brain trust' that the paper was setting up with the BBC and on which highbrow discussions would be followed by one of Fanny's cookery demonstrations. Ronay agreed and also began a weekly restaurant column that ran for six years in the paper. The response was so enthusiastic that, in 1957, he decided to publish a restaurant guide.
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." He met the cost by selling four pages of advertising to the Ford motor company. The guide was an instant hit, selling 30,000 copies in the first year.
After the success of the first issue, Ronay started bringing out a new guide each year and hired a team of inspectors to visit the restaurants -- and later hotels and even pubs -- anonymously. He wrote each guide from scratch, revisiting every restaurant instead of simply updating the last year's entry (to the horror of his accountants). He never accepted a free meal.
Ronay had a nose for talent and was an early champion of Marco Pierre White, Raymond Blanc and later Gordon Ramsay and Marcus Wareing. For those who fell short of expected standards, he could be coruscating. Most airline food was "premeditated gastronomic murder"; motorway service-station meals were "pig swill". He was no kinder about his rival guides. The Michelin Guide, he observed, was designed to appeal to snobs who delighted in its French chauvinism. The AA Restaurant Guide, by contrast, simply showed "insufficient gastronomic expertise".
Ronay ran his guide for the next three decades, raising its circulation to more than double that of its closest rivals. But eventually the strain began to take its toll and, in 1985, he sold -- for a healthy profit -- the guides and the right to use his name. They were acquired by the Automobile Association (AA). Ronay concentrated instead on journalism and consultancy work.
He soon came to regret his decision, for in 1992 the AA sold the guides on to another company which got into financial difficulties. Eventually the company went bankrupt and, following a High Court judgment, Ronay got back the publishing rights to the guide and to his name in 1996. After an absence of more than seven years, a new edition of Egon Ronay's Guide was published in February 2005, sponsored by the Royal Automobile Club. The next year he published a guide to Britain's best restaurants and gastropubs.
Ronay, whose palate was insured for £250,000 (€300,874), claimed to hate discussing food, but was fond of predicting that British cooking would soon outclass the French.
Egon Ronay was twice married; secondly, in 1967, to the painter Barbara Greenslade who survives him with a son and two daughters (film-maker Esther and designer Edina) of his first marriage.