LONDON (Reuters Life!) - It's knives and forks drawn in the well-fed world of restaurant reviewers.
Two top-selling restaurant guides -- New York-based foodie's bible Zagat's, and Harden's, a Zagat-inspired tome that's a force in Britain -- are locked in an unseemly spat over their latest London rankings.
And at the heart of the gastronomic stand-off is Gordon Ramsay, the expletive-spewing, global celebrity-cum-chef who is never far from controversy.
Put simply, Zagat's thinks Ramsay is the top dog on the London fine-dining scene, while Harden's believes the best days of the motor-mouth chef may be over.
In its 2009 guide, Harden's gives top-billing to Petrus, a restaurant whose head chef, Marcus Wareing, is a Gordon Ramsay protege. Ramsay's flagship restaurant, Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, is pushed into second place.
"Wareing is emerging from Ramsay's ‘shadow' as the proprietor of what is now clearly the best restaurant in London, and he and his team should be congratulated," declared Peter Harden, the co-editor of Harden's, before adding:
"The Ramsay empire's current performance -- and in particular the poor standard of most of the more recent openings -- raises questions as to its direction, and its ability to maintain its reputation as an operator of the highest quality."
It was a stinging rebuke for Ramsay, who had been at the top of the rankings for eight years.
But as far as Harden's -- motto "To tell it how it is" -- is concerned, it was only a matter of time as Ramsay lent his name to ever more establishments and the quality of some declines.
"Ramsay's not superhuman despite the media myth," Richard Harden, Peter's brother, told Reuters. "Something had to give."
But Zagat's is not so sure and its founder, Tim Zagat, has been outspoken in his disagreement with Harden's decision. At the launch of the 2009 Zagat London guide this week he told the Evening Standard newspaper:
"Harden's are full of s--- and you can quote me on that.
"They attack people every year just to get more publicity. Gordon Ramsay is an easy target for them because of his profile," the paper quoted Zagat as saying.
Harden's responded by issuing a press release that began: "Oh dear, bad language seems to be infectious", an apparent reference to Ramsay's fluency in swearing.
"We're not going to get into a slanging match with a competing publisher," Harden's wrote, before going on to point out how the competing guides were generally in agreement on some of Ramsay's lower-budget eateries if not the flagship one.
Zagat and his wife Tina, who began their guides in New York 30 years ago and have built them into a multi-million dollar global brand, were not immediately available for comment.
Given how competitive the restaurant business in London is, especially at a time when the wealthy are cutting back, the dispute is unlikely to die down quickly.
But for once, and perhaps surprisingly, the only person who hasn't yet stepped into the fray is the man at the heart of the bun-fight: the usually loquacious Ramsay.
Editing by Paul Casciato