What is the best restaurant in Watford? Not just for quality of food, but for atmosphere, value for money, for that intangible sense of excellence. Which eatery provides the biggest hmmm for your buck?
You could debate this for a long, long time but, as luck would have it, you don't need to because there’s an answer, created by the folks at TripAdvisor.
The website, which has grown from a travellers’ forum to become a sort of global guide to where to go and what to do, collates and analyses its reviews for every restaurant, comes up with an average score, then ranks them.
You end up with a hit parade of restaurants, hotels, tourist attractions and goodness knows what else for just about every town and city in the world.
So...drum roll please . . . Watford’s best eatery is – Tarboush Cafe in Market Street, a Lebanese restaurant described by one recent customer as "perfect in every way".
Of the 331 people who’ve taken the trouble to review it, about 80 per cent decreed it "excellent" and another 14 per cent or so said it was "very good". Those are heady figures. It doesn’t necessarily mean the food is the out-and-out best, but that is has, on average, the most satisfied diners in the town.
I guess one of the restaurants at The Grove (which, of course, resolutely denies being in Watford) would probably score better with food critics, but that isn't what TripAdvisor aims at.
We’re talking satisfaction here, and on that score the chaps at Tarboush score better than the chefs at The Grove. TripAdvisor is not perfect, but it’s pretty impressive. Yes, the people who submit reviews are not chosen at random, so it’s self-selecting, and yes, I’m sure there are plenty of restaurateurs and hoteliers who’ve submitted glowing reviews of their own establishment and stinking condemnations of their rivals.
But just as Wikipedia, with an impressive level of success, uses its own members to root out errors, so TripAdvisor seems to me a rather accurate gauge of whether somewhere is good, bad or indifferent. I don’t think I’ve ever been disappointed at a place it recommended.
The key to all this is the TripAdvisor app, a genius app you load on your mobile phone. Switch it on and press the button called "Near me now" and it provides an instant run-down of all the cafes, restaurants, hotels and other stuff around you at that moment. And, crucially, it sums up all those reviews.
Hence this week, my wife and I were in Devon for a day, looking forward to having a crab salad and trying to decide whether to go to that place over there, with the inviting looking balcony and the nice décor.
I look on the phone, call up the review and see it getting panned by all and sundry. "The worst gastronomic experience of my life," said one. We walked away . . .
On holiday in Rome last year, every street was packed with restaurants desperate to charge tourists huge prices for poor food – this clever little app delivered us to a wonderful place, full of Romans, where the meal was delicious, creative, beautifully served and reasonably priced.
But I’m sorry to say I’ve never returned the favour to all these people who’ve so kindly given me the benefit of their opinions. I’ve never submitted a review, even when I’ve been thrilled or dismayed by the service I got and I’m beginning to feel bad about it.
Perhaps I just needed a push, something to spring me into action. So good news – I’ve been given a really good thing to grumble about, and it might just push me into TripAdvisor action.
Because while I’ve been to some great hotels, and far more lousy ones, I’ve never been to one where I was woken up by a dog in the next door room.
It happened first at 3am. And bearing in mind we’re talking about partition walls here, flimsy enough that you can hear a conversation in the neighbouring room, it’s fair to say next door’s dog going full bark is enough to rouse anyone. Especially when it sounded like he was about three feet away.
What do you do at times like this? Short of taping up the animal’s mouth, it’s pretty tough to stop a dog barking, so you just wait for it to stop and go back to sleep. Which it did, for two hours, before resuming at 5am.
In fairness, almost everything else about the hotel was very nice location, food, view and provision of a packet of shortbread biscuits.
But they did seem extremely uninterested in our night-time canine interruptions, other than suggesting we "could have called the night porter". Why? Is he some kind of dog-whisperer? Or is there just a chance a strange man turning up at 3am might have resulted in a whole load more barking?
No. What we really wanted was someone to say "I’m sorry" and look like they meant it. And they wouldn’t do it until we mentioned TripAdvisor, when the apologies came tumbling out left, right and centre, even if they still lacked any conviction.
So there are two lessons to this. Firstly, threaten a lousy review when things start going wrong (and why not write it regardless?), and secondly, get in the habit of asking hotel receptionists if you could avoid being next to someone with a noisy dog.
Not something I’ve ever had to do before but – hey – the world’s changing and we have to change with it.
And talking of change, one name disappearing from TripAdvisor in the near future will be the Long Island Exchange.
When it closes, Rickmansworth will no longer have a hotel of any kind. What a pity that is, for surely a town of this size, with all its satellite villages, needs accommodation way beyond the realms of our friendly B and Bs. But even if someone did want to bring in a hotel – where on earth would they now put it?
If you are in Rickmansworth, remember TripAdvisor’s selection of the number one restaurant in town is . . . (second drum roll of the column) . . . the Tamarind Thai. At the risk of losing my impartiality, that’s a decision I can heartily endorse.