The Malta Independent 8 August 2020, Saturday

Marie Benoit's Diary: The 2020 Restaurants Awards Ceremony at the Excelsior

Tuesday, 21 January 2020, 10:03 Last update: about 8 months ago

When we eat out we are not just doing it for the food and drink. Eating out has become a form of entertainment.  It is a pleasant way of people watching, of meeting friends and of escaping the kitchen and the routine of everyday life.

 Ambiance in a restaurant is almost as important as the food and drink on the menu. What is more pleasant than eating in a medieval, narrow street and enjoying the fragrance of the Mediterranean? Or especially, in summer, by the sea?


With this in mind and with the number of restaurants growing and eating out steadily becoming more and more popular some 20 years ago the late Colin Best and Lisa Grech decided to start a restaurant guide based on surveys sent in by independent individuals. The awards involved  anyone who chose to fill in the questionnaire and send it in the selection process which is a democratic way of conducting a survey. They're designed to be won by places which have given most pleasure to diners and that doesn't mean the most exclusive, expensive and obvious choices.

The Awards Night is now firmly fixed in the social calendar with a Gala dinner held in a restaurant which is big enough and brave enough to feed 300 or more guests.

There was no Awards ceremony when the Guide was first started and the first Awards night was held at Villa Chappelle in St Paul's Bay in 2003 and the then Minister for Tourism, Dr Michael Refalo presented the awards. The latest was held last month at the Hotel Excelsior in Floriana. There is always a frisson on these nights to see who won an award and whether your favourite restaurants are on the list.

Most women dress up for this special evening, with impeccable hair, manicured and madeup probably professionally, the men in dinner jacket.

If you ever wondered when all the glamorous and shimmering dresses one sees in shop windows all over the island are worn, well certainly one of the answers is the Restaurant Guide's Awards night.

As usual Lisa Grech, elegant, in her speech provided some 340 diners with interesting information. She, first of all, welcomed everyone present, 'the best of the restaurant industry' and went on to thank the sponsors.

Also present were Ramon Micallef and his wife Antoinette, who designed The Restaurant Guide, now in a new format. They also designed all the collateral material related to the 20th year of the publication, including the 20th Anniversary logo and the Plate Award. They have been the designers of this publication for some 15 years. Of course she thanked her team, at the top of the list her co-workers, Denise Briffa and Crysta Darmanin.

Lisa said that over the years there have been amazing developments in the restaurant industry in all areas of the dining experience. She said that with Colin Best who created the Guide with her, they had visions of creating Malta as 'the Gastronomic Centre of the Mediterranean' and putting the Maltese Islands on the gastronomic map. "Our concept was and still is to guide lovers of good food to the restaurants that provide a consistent standard of cuisine in the Mediterranean."

She explained how 20 years ago after much research she had conducted they decided, at the time, that it was the best concept for Malta so that clients could rate their favourite restaurants and the data could then be analysed by econometricians in Colin's company in the US "so that it would remain objective." Colin and Lisa realised that a critic based restaurant guide could easily be influenced and would be less objective than a survey based guide and they were proved right as today, Lisa said, it remains the only objective guide to the Maltese Islands.

Lisa then spoke about the amazing changes in the restaurant industry. "There was a time when I thought I would go mad if I saw another trattoria style restaurant with red and white chequered tablecloths and Mount Etna on the wall."

She reminded diners that the variety of food was limited with predominantly pizza and pasta on the menus and the service intermittent depending on the waiters mood that night.

Surely those of us of a certain age remember the popular Bologna restaurant in Valletta and Gillieru in St Paul's bay at a time when eating out was a treat and only happened on special occasions.

Lisa spoke of the great improvement in the restaurant industry, the characters that dominate it "many of whom dedicated their lives to their passion of restaurant ownership."

She mentioned absent friends and recalled Dr Refalo who called himself Minister of Food. He was also a stickler for typos and Lisa said she remembers him pointing out some spelling mistakes "such as a restaurant that was called a 'brassier' which should have read 'brasserie'."

She reminded us of Colin Best and her own father Philip Grech, both now no longer with us. Sadly, there were others: Charles Preca of Tal Familja Restaurant, Ino Attard of Ta'Frenc and John Taylor of Lord Nelson and more recently Maria Muscat of Ta'Marija Restaurant. In fact The Maria Muscat Award which aims to commemorate her memory by recognising women in the industry was introduced this year.

The culinary awards which recognise and reward Malta's BEST survey-rated restaurant were then presented.

Lisa then launched the latest Restaurant Guide and said that the website has been updated.

The attractive Guide is now in a slightly different format. It is the synthesis of survey responses from over 3109 diners who dine out on average of one to two times a week - the equivalent of 242,502 dining experiences. "This year saw a good number of changes in the Guide taken from the survey with 24 new additions and 41 restaurants no longer in the Guide."

She also mentioned the new venture Offbeat Malta Food Trails - a three-hour tour with a professional guide touring Valletta and Mdina and visiting various eateries while learning about the history of food in Malta.

So finally, Malta's top 40 restaurants were announced and presented with the highly acclaimed commemorative plates sponsored by Continental Purchasing, representing Villeroy & Boch.

Other award categories were presented.

Dinner was served by a hardworking team of waiters. The menu included a range of canapes, a delicious duck terrine, red bream, loin of veal in chicken and morel mushroom mousse and for desert millefeuille and chocolate ice-cream, all accompanied by wines from Spain, France, Chile and Italy.

Lisa, had already thanked Executive Chef Melvin Sammut and his kitchen brigade and the Events and Food and Beverages team headed by Chris Fenech of the Grand Hotel Excelsior for hosting the dinner. Quite a task.

I will not comment on the winners but it is certainly worth finding out which the 40 top restaurants in Malta are and also to take note of the 41 restaurants which are no longer in the Guide. To  do this I shall have to compare it with last year's Guide. Will I ever get round to doing that?

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