WARNING: THIS IS a column top-heavy with superlatives and I make no excuses for them. For one reason or another (and despite a few reservations) I find the following books very useful and satisfying. Perhaps you will, too.
"Egon Ronay's Lucas Guide 1980," (800 pp., illus. and maps, $9.95, paperback, Penguin Books, N.Y.).
There are other British guidebooks to eating and, as my expert adviser on food informs me, "England is more into this sort of thing than we are," but the Egon Ronay Organization Ltd. has again produced what is certainly far and away the most prestigious guide to "Hotels, Restaurants, Inns in Great Britain and Ireland."
Its coverage is comprehensive and impressive, the promise of the table of contents being amply fulfilled: a selection of three-star, two-star and one-star restaurants; "1,001 Bargains"; bed and breakfast; hotels and restaurants at London airports, and much more.
There is a special 10-page section rating "The 22 Best Hotels in New York" (The Pierre, United Nations Plaza and Waldorf-Astoria are the top three, in that order). Ronay says, "The most surprising conclusion is that there are more DeLuxe hotels in London than in New York and that, in general terms, London has better hotels in both DeLuxe and Grade 1 categories."
However, I was first amused to find that Ronay devotes 25 pages to a "Survey of 14 Transatlantic Airlines" that has him repeating the same (basically true) charges about the pitiful, tasteless and at times inedible mess that some airlines foist on passengers as "in-flight meals," as if he had discovered some new truth. (His solution is not original either.)
Then I was disturbed and in disagreement with the Ronay Organization over the overall tone of what seems to me a brroad, unbalanced attack on the airlines perpetrated with a fire axe (or it is a meat cleaver?), and based on a survey I doubt is very scientific. (See story on page E6.) "Where to Eat in America," edited by William Rice and Burton Wolf (567 pp., $7.95, paperback, Random House).
First compiled two years ago, this new edition just published is now subtitled "An indispensable guide to finding what you want to eat when you want to eat it in 50 of North America's most-traveled cities."
The first edition, which covered only 30 cities," received critical approval and unstinted praise from many coast-to-coast travelers long inured to disappointment, heartburn -- or worse. They now have additional cause for digestive pleasure with this revised and enlarged volume whose "chief aim" is still "to aid the person or family who is traveling." It is designed for those "for whom food quality and kitchen orginality is the primary concern when dining out."
There are no advertisements in the book and, as Rice explained, "nobody bought his way in . . . if there are a few mistakes they are honest mistakes." No punches are pulled and some hard looks are taken, but this is not intended to be a hatchet-job on various eating places. The very bad spots were just left out. Readers' comments played a role (an evaluation form is included at the end of the book).
Burton Wolf is considered one of the "world's leading authorities on the selection and care of cooking equipment," and contributes to periodicals and TV programs.
Bill Rice, executive food editor of The Washington Post, is one of my colleagues. He has degrees from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism and Le Cordon Bleu in Paris.
Neither co-editor has visited every restaurant listed in their book, though they are personally familiar with many. they set up the criteria and selected 38 "expert contributors" around the country who, as Rice put it, "share our attitudes toward eating in restaurants."
This is not merely a collection of best restaurants and there was no effort to have a comprehensive listing for each city covered, but more than 2,100 restaurants are discussed. The way they are organized makes the volume a pleasure to use, particularly if you are en route to a city with which you are not especially familiar and have time for only a few meals but no inclination to risk potluck.
The section on each city begins with a concise introduction about customs and food history, and also includes helpful hints about proper dress. Headings are self-explanatory:
"Big Deal" (subheadings, "worth it" and "not worth it"); "International"; "For Individual Needs" (including entries like "if you have time for only one meal," "best hotel meal," "restaurant near airport," "business lunch") and two new categories, "For Families With Children" and "Sunday-Evening Meal."
Rice points out that due to the lead time between processing of entries and publication, it is necessary to lean toward "the conservative side" when selecting new restaurant listings. This helps protect the reader against new ventures that may open in a blaze of culinary glory and then quickly drown in their own sauces.
I have patronized only a few of the restaurants in this book.I freely admit that my palate is not highly educated in some respects, yet it is far from illiterate. In other words, I can appreciate the difference between a hash-house burger, and a turtle steak garnished with warm tropical fruit at a Caribbean isle resort. But I have no qualms about depending upon Rice's broad expertise exercised without snobbery.
Naturally, it is always heartwarming to have even a few of one's personal likes and dislikes confirmed. For example, Rice (who is naturally solely responsible for the Washington, D.C. section) still rate the buffet lunch at the Sheraton-Carlton as the best hotel meal in town.
Incidentally, the "Big Deal" listings in Washington have changed in two years.Page 552 has warm praise for Le Lion d'Or (under "worth it"), plus a blast at the Madison's Montepelier Room ("not worth it") which was presaged by negative comments in the first edition's introduction to Washington.
It was instructive to learn fromRice the reasons why the two "Big Deal" entries last time -- Tiberio ("worth it") and San Souci ("not worth it") -- were thus replaced in the new edition. Tiberio survives in the Italian section while Sans Souci is now not included in the listings.
Tiberio dropped in the guide's rating, according to Rice, because "other business ventures diveted the owner's attention" to the extent that "some inconsistency" was reported in both food and service (interestingly, Rice noted that during a recent visit the owner was present and things were running very smoothly).
In the case of Sans Souci, Rice said, at the moment it is "obviously a restaurant in transition, therefore we don't think that people have to be warned away from it, but at press time it still hadn't found itself."
Fielding's Caribbean, Including Cuba, 1980," by Margaret Zellers (826 pp., $10.95, paperback, Fielding Publications).
In past years, under different authorship, this earned my rating of top guide to the West Indies. Now we have the second edition authored by Zellers, and I believe that her impressive research should guarantee that under her experienced hand the book will stay in first place.
Here is a wealth of readable, up-to-date information and tips on hotels, food, money, cabs, in-bond shipping, airports, etc. And Zellers can be a hard critic on occasion. (Also included this year is Fiedling's free "Living Guide" travel service -- see story on Page E2.)
I fault the guide on only two counts:
First, though there are certainly instances where Zellers clearly states the case, good or bad, I somehow wind up with the feeling that I really don't know how she rates many of the hotels. I find myself longing not so much for her "Author's Awards" (though they serve a purpose), as for an unequivocable, easy-to-understand statement about each property that will reveal hotel standings on each island -- as she sees it. (She now uses an alphabetical listing.) It might make more Caribbean hoteliers unhappy but, after all, Zellers does have "the interests of the traveler/consumer at heart."
Second, as one who visited Cuba during the early days of Fidel Castro but who does not intend to return as a tourist to that island before diplomatic relations are resumed between the United States and Cuba, I'm disappointed in one aspect of her Cuba coverage despite her good political and tourism facts.
Since the guide's title specifically singles out Cuba, and 46 pages are devoted to an island that has suffered under dictatorial regimes in both right and left, I think the section should spell out Castro's great need for U.S. tourism dollars for his sagging economy and take note of his violent diatribes against the U.S. government. And in view of Cuba's military intervention in Africa, and U.S. concern that Castro's agents may be continuing subversive efforts against governments in Central America and the Caribbean (something readers should be reminded of), why shouldn't the guide mention this and also offer a comparison between the kind of tourism experience the dollar buys in Cuba versus other islands?
Zellers points out (and it is true, at least for now) that the Cuban man-in-the-street is still warm and friendly toward American visitors -- he hates only the U.S. government (following Fidel's lead). but even before the Iranian crisis, I had decided that I cannot calmly accept that kind of Third World philosophy. After all, it is my government they're hating.
"New Book of the Road" (415 pp.), "Concise Road Book of Europe," (344 pp.), "Book of British Towns," (431 pp.) and "Hand-Picked Tours in Britain," (424 pp.) by the Automobile Association of England (each $19.95, hardcover, W.W. Norton & Co., N.Y.).
Ironically, these four volumes, prepared in association with the Reader's Digest Ltd., have appeared at a time when many American tourists have been making a painfully realistic reappraisal of their budgets and wondering warily if perhaps it would be better to vacation in the United States.
The battered dollar is still suffering in overseas markets; inflation is rampant (on both sides of the Atlantic nd elsewhere); gas, hotel and restaurant prices continue to skyrocket. Meanwhile, the rising cost of jet fuel is forcing airline fares to start climbing steadily upwards, despite the early promises of deregulation, increased competition, and the existence of packages and those here-today, gone-tomorrow promotional and other special fares.
Perhaps (and I realize it is almost sacrilegious for a travel editor to say such a thing), instead of using these volumes to plan happy motoring trips in Europe, readers will decide that it's much cheaper to pay the price of one or more books and simply daydream in a easychair. They are handsomely designed, beautifully printed and immensely valuable guides, whether you travel physically or vicariously. The maps of Britain and Ireland (in the "New Book of the Road") and of Europe (in "Concise Road Book") are excellent and should be easy to use while driving.
The "New Book" begins with a 68-page primer diagnosing auto problems that cause breakdowns and showing you how to make "running repairs" that will "get you home or to a garage." There is also a primer on the weather nd tips on bad weather driving. Not to mention a monthly calendar of events in Britain, a section on first aid, separate maps giving "roads and amenities for 109 major towns," a gazetteer, and a delightful section for the nature lover.
"Book of British Towns" and "Hand Picked Tours in Britain" invite hours of quiet browsing. In those pages you will find kings and queens, castles and cathedrals, ghosts and gardens, pageants and people -- an encyclopedic capsule look at yesterday and today. There ae hundreds of photos, mostly in color, maps and drawings.
"How to Take Better Travel Photos," by Lisl Dennis (160 pp., $7.95, paperback, HP Books).
This is a personal approach to travel photography aimed at the novice who wants to make better vacation pictures, and the serious amateur who would like to try free-lancing. And on those levels I think it works very well.
Without getting highly technical, Dennis discusses basic equipment and explains how she uses it in a chatty narrative that gives actual "case histories" of some of her travel assignments. She offers helpful tips on making travel portraits and scenics.
To her credit, she does not attempt to sugar-coat the difficulties of breaking into free-lance photography and admits candidly that "the travel industry alone cannot support me and my husband" (writer Landt Dennis). She has corporate and advertising accounts, her husband writes general features too, and they collaborate on books.
The guide is illustrated with Dennis' technically fine color photos, but the subject matter is sometimes typical "travel folder modern" with little excitement or impact.But, then again, she knows what her clients are buying. And to be fair, few newspaper travel sections publish any full color illustrations, and those that do are not noted for dramatic art.