Amidst all the paperwork, meetings, emails, lists and phone calls that are involved in Lunch with the FT it is very easy to forget that what we collectively - the FT, the restaurateurs and the reader/restaurant-goers - have managed to create, however inadvertently, is a brand.
In fact it took a wine merchant, Willie Lebus of Bibendum, to point this out to me recently, drawing a parallel between this annual event and the fact that certain restaurants, despite everything that is going on at the moment, are busier than ever. 'When times are tough,' he explained, 'customers seem to revert to type, they want comforting.'
Lunch with the FT 2003 obviously fulfills this role and continues to meet the criteria for its brand status. Readers were keener than ever to get hold of the list of the participating restaurants; restaurateurs have been more effusive than ever in their thanks for this annual boost to their business; and the accompanying list of those who have performed particularly well during the three weeks has been even more keenly anticipated.
The major reason that this list appears slightly later than usual is because of a record response to the FT questionnaires. This number has been swelled by a further influx of completed questionnaires received via www.ft.com making a total of just under 18,000 to be processed, an increase of 25 per cent on previous years. From this huge post bag we have drawn the names of three fortunate readers, Mrs Tomlinson from West Sussex, Mr Church from Surrey and Mr McLellan from Stoke on Trent, who will each enjoy a meal to the value of £200 at a participating restaurant of their choice.
In certain respects, the list holds no surprises. Two of the winners, Hambleton Hall and Bryn Howel Hotel, have won first place in the past whilst the other two, The Priory Hotel and The King's Head have always been very highly rated. My congratulations and thanks to the management, kitchen brigades and front of house teams of all these restaurants.
What is even more pleasing is the wide geographical spread of the top 20 restaurants. The three London restaurants represent the best showing for the capital for some time. And it was equally encouraging to receive letters from the proprietors of several restaurants such as The Rose & Crown in Snettisham, Norfolk and The Spread Eagle Hotel in Thame, Oxfordshire who participated for the first time and reported a considerable boost to business and many satisfied readers.
I am only too aware, however, of the geographical lacunae, most notably in the North West, parts of the Midlands and in Scotland. Several readers have kindly offered to forward names of suitable restaurants in the autumn for next year for which I would be most grateful.
The competition to conceive of a classy British equivalent to the pre-prandial greeting bon appétit produced a bumper inflow of emails with several readers sending in as many as ten alternatives each and one going as far as claiming intellectual property rights.
As I feared, there was no outright winner and no obvious alternative but five FT readers have received a signed copy of the latest World Atlas of Wine by Hugh Johnson and FT wine writer Jancis Robinson for their witty and enthusiastic responses.
Two in particular stood out. The first is the phrase 'Fang 'owt'. What it lacks in elegance it makes up for in historical detail. The expression was used apparently in rural Shropshire at harvest time when the table would have a good supply of food ready for the hard-working and hungry harvesters. The second was Debenham, the bizarre suggestion of a couple of FT readers inspired apparently by dinner then an evening's cannabis intake in the Netherlands!
Lunch with the FT Asia
We have always thought of taking the principles of Lunch with the FT outside the UK and in fact we did have a successful one-off tie-in with New York restaurants a year ago. But plans are now well advanced to take Lunch with the FT into Hong Hong, Singapore and Tokyo in the autumn once FT Asia has been launched. More details in September.
Save the Children
First, the good news. The return to the Save the Children donation envelopes has proved much more successful than the pound per table approach. However, there is still such a backlog of envelopes in the charity's Finance Department waiting to be opened and counted that I cannot yet announce precisely what has been added to the £430,000 we have raised so far. I hope to annonuce the figure at the end of April but thank you all for being so generous once again.
The top restaurants
Hambleton Hall, Oakham, Rutland (tel 01572 725056)
The River Cafe, London, W6 (tel 020 7386 4200)
Read's Restaurant, Faversham, Kent (tel 01795 535344)
Restaurant One-O-One, Sheraton Park Tower, London, SW1 (tel 020 7290 7101)
The Seafood Restaurant, Padstow, Cornwall (tel 01841 532700)
Midsummer House, Cambridge (tel 01223 369299)
The Priory Hotel, Wareham, Dorset (tel 01929 551666)
Sir Charles Napier, Chinnor, Oxfordshire (tel 01494 483011)
Stock Hill House Hotel, Gillingham, Dorset (tel 01747 823626)
La Trompette, London, W4 (tel 020 8747 1836)
The Arundell Arms, Lifton, Devon (tel 01566 784666)
The King's Head Restaurant, nr Leighton Buzzard, Bucks (tel 01296 668388)
The Horn of Plenty, Tavistock, Devon (tel 01822 832528)
The White Horse Inn, Chilgrove, Sussex (tel 01243 535219)
Fleur de Sel, Storrington, West Sussex (tel 01903 742331)
The Devil's Kneading Trough, Ashford, Kent (tel 01233813212)
Bryn Howel Hotel, Llangollen, Wales (tel 01978 860331)
Perkins Restaurant and Bar, Plumtree, Notts (tel 01159 373695)
Hallidays Restaurant, Chichester, Sussex (tel 01243 575331)
The Punch Bowl Inn, Crosthwaite, Cumbria (tel 01539 568237)
Penhelig Arms Hotel, Aberdyfi, Wales (tel 01654 767215)