PROFILE: Anne Hardy

OTTAWA Magazine, January 2006

She writes and edits Canada’s oldest independent dining guide. She drives coast-to-coast eating and drinking in the best restaurants in every city, town and village. She dishes out highly anticipated star-ratings to the restaurants she deems worthy of appearing in her book, Where to Eat in Canada. But whatever you do, don’t compare Anne Hardy to a Michelin guide inspector.  

The septuagenarian restaurant critic is serious about separating herself from the kind of bloated restaurant ratings publications she says accept free meals, identify themselves to restaurant staff and take payments for listings. “We prefer to be anonymous,” says Hardy. “We have always thought of ourselves as a consumers’ guide. I think of the ordinary Canadian going out to dinner who wants to get value for money.”

In an age of sexy food lifestyle products, Hardy’s book feels somewhat reserved. There’s no catchy taglines, no celebrity endorsements, no mouthwatering food images. In fact, the cover of this year’s edition features a somber photo of a lone figure in a canoe gliding across a glassy lake. It’s all part of the book’s unapologetic air of authority, a tone that is apparent throughout the text, including a warning on page 299: “If you use an out-of-date edition and find it inaccurate, don’t blame us. Buy a new edition.” Hardy’s no-nonsense voice may very well be the key to the book’s appeal, with more than CHK150,000 copies selling every year.

Hardy came up with the idea of creating Where to Eat in Canada when she found herself on the road selling books for Ottawa-based book publisher Oberon Press more than thirty-five years ago. “I was eating an awful lot of bad meals,” she says. She knew dining guides existed in England and France at the time, but not in Canada. She discovered that librarians and bookstore owners were knowledgeable about restaurants and started out by following their recommendations.

Over the years, she has built up a roster of regional editors and contributors across the country, people who eat in restaurants frequently and whose opinions she trusts. “I don’t pay, they work purely because they believe in the cause. They get $35 or $40 for their meals and it’s going to cost them a lot more than that,” she says.

While she relies on her team to keep her informed of restaurant openings and closings, changes in chefs, menus and overall quality of the listings, Hardy’s job is hands-on. She has visited about 90% of the restaurants in the book herself. Some might say her gig sounds glamorous, but Hardy is quick to set the record straight. ” It’s very tiring actually. It’s a big country; it’s a lot of highways, a lot of motels, eating meals one on top of another. Last year we were in fog the whole time we were in the west. Other years snow has been storming down.” Then there’s the matter of sheer caloric intake that goes with the territory. “I work and work to lose it, I exercise like mad, but still I’ve still gained 25 pounds.”

Once she returns home to Ottawa, Hardy spends a good part of the winter painstakingly updating the guide, re-writing about two-thirds of its content every year. ” That’s the worst part,” she says, “You call and they’ll say, those aren’t my hours, we don’t have that on the menu anymore.” The 400-page book takes hungry travellers on a journey to more than 250 destinations arranged alphabetically, from Abbotsford B.C. to Yellowknife, Northwest Territories. It reviews haute cuisine alongside sandwich shops and tearooms with an emphasis on fresh ingredients. ” The quality has to be there. I guess I can get a little fussy about that. I don’t like getting poor ingredients.”

Each restaurant is reviewed in a page or less and some are given ratings: one, two or three stars. Hardy admits the star system makes her nervous. “It’s sometimes impossible to measure one place against another,” she says. For that reason, she does not take her stars lightly. Only 26 restaurants in the country hold the highest rating, including Ottawa’s Signatures. “When I used to go on the road, everybody served baked potatoes in foil, vegetables were just carrots.” she says, “These days, the level of sophistication is just incredible; they almost try to knock you over with it.”

After 35 years on the road, Hardy still manages to remain relatively incognito. That is, with the e xception of Ottawa, where it has proved impossible. Years ago, somebody Hardy knew from a different line of work bought a restaurant and from then on, she became known to many other local restaurateurs. “I don’t like it, it makes life much more difficult,” she says. “It’s hard, because you know people and you like them – nobody would want to do this job and be recognized.”