The awards are voted for by an academy that is made up of more than 150 industry experts including chefs, restaurateurs, food writers, critics and other food experts and gastronomes, from across all regions of the UK. Each voter is given seven votes based on their best restaurant experiences from the last 12 months. Votes are listed in order of preference and must be for restaurants both in their ‘home’ region and outside it. Once all votes are cast, they are added up by Restaurant Magazine to create the list. In the event of a tied number of votes, the preference ‘weighting’ comes into play.
The Sportsman has been under chef-owner Stephen Harris’ watchful eye since 1999 and held its Michelin star since 2008. We caught up with Stephen to hear his take on the awards, celebrations and future plans.
LM: Congratulations on winning the #1 restaurant in the UK…again! Did you ever think you would win the award two years in a row?
SH: No! I suppose there was always the possibility but it is very unexpected. I think one of the great things about the top 100 list is that it is always changing, it doesn’t stay the same so in that sense we didn’t expect to hold onto the top spot. It’s funny, last year just my wife and I attended the awards. I hadn’t expected to win and so I didn’t bring the team down with me, but afterwards I felt guilty. This year, I brought them along, not because I thought we might win, but as a way celebrate what we achieved last year. And then we won!
LM: Have you noticed a difference to the business since winning last year?
SH: Absolutely, it’s been a crazy year. We’ve always been a busy restaurant, but since winning last year we’ve been busy all the time. We’ve barely had a spare table all year, lunch and dinner is fully booked every day. It’s really put us into another sphere – which is great. The flip-side to that is that we do sometimes have to turn guests away, and that’s never nice but it’s good to be busy. We’ve also put a lot of work into the restaurant over the last year, we’ve worked on the the building and the garden, lots of things which will help us gear up for the year ahead.
LM: Sounds like a very busy year! Have you incorporated the fact that you were voted #1 last year into your marketing to attract new diners?
SH: Not really, in general we don’t do a lot of marketing, we don’t have a PR agency and we don’t do advertising. We rely on word of mouth, it’s an approach that takes time but for us it works. Having said that we do actually have a book come later this year. It’s going to be called The Sportsman. The main focus will be on the food we serve and will contain a range of recipes, but it’s also going to highlight our own personal history with the pub. Before we took it over this was a local pub. My brother Phil had his first drink here, and I used to use it as a base for my band, so we’ve included a few stories. It’s going to be published in September, I’m really pleased to have it published in the same year that we’re voted #1 in the UK.
LM: Tell us more about what makes The Sportsman different
SH: Early on, when we first opened the restaurant, my brother Phil and I decided we wanted to create a restaurant that we would want to go to ourselves. For us, that means that we don’t turn tables and we don’t require credit cards to hold bookings. I understand why in cities like London you have to do that, it’s a competitive environment, rents are expensive and so on. One of the nice things of being out of London is that those pressures aren’t as severe. It means we can focus on giving people a great experience from the minute they book to leave.
The approach obviously works! Did you have a big celebration for the team after winning this year?
SH: I’m probably going to sound like a grinch – but I haven’t really celebrated yet, I was back at work early the next day. That probably sounds terrible! I am going to organise an evening for the team, we should take some to celebrate together, it’s important for everyone.
LM: Is there one thing that you believe helped you to retain this award?
SH: I don’t think I can pinpoint one thing. The food is obviously a big focus and and people love it. Our menus are seasonal, local and fresh. I’m also always looking for new farmers and new products. I think that plus the whole vibe is what makes it. People from London love coming here for the day – get on the train at St. Pancras, and in less than an hour you’re in Faversham, with a glass of Champagne in your hand and the sea at your feet. People love a day out by the sea, it feels like a mini break and I think that helps us.
LM: So what’s on the cards for the next year at The Sportsman? A third year at number 1 perhaps?
SH: Well that’s not really up to us to decide! In all seriousness, I didn’t expect to win it the first year, let alone for a second. The important thing for us now is to concentrate on what we’re good at, and not get ahead of ourselves. We have the book coming out, and we’re in the process of building beach huts which people can book and stay in, that will help us build upon our status as a dining destination. That’s more than enough to keep us busy. For now, we’re enjoying our time in the sun. If next year, we move down the list, then at least we’ll have enjoyed it while it was here. It’s our lifestyle, it’s who we are and we love what we do.
Here’s the top 10 UK restaurant winners at this year’s National Restaurant Awards:
- The Sportsman, Kent
- The Ledbury, London
- A Wong, London
- Som Saa, London
- Barrafina Adelaide Street, London
- Casamia, London
- The Clove Club, London
- Elystan Street, London
- Kiln, London
- Hedone, London