He's had more hot dinners...

When Egon Ronay arrived in Britain from Hungary in 1946, the food was so bad he started his own restaurant. Those famous eating-out guides followed, but in 1985 he lost control of the empire that bore his name. Now, reports Rachel Cooke, he's planning a comeback

When I was a girl, I didn't realise Egon Ronay was a human being. I had this strange idea that he was a particular kind of cuisine. We were always going out for Egon Ronays; it was just like going out for an Indian. The Indian restaurants I learnt to recognise by their flock wallpaper, swirly carpets and high-backed chairs, but I knew I was entering an Egon Ronay because a little plaque beside the door told me so. In the Seventies, an Egon Ronay involved various delicious elements: often, for instance, there was pté and toast on the menu - or quiche. Occasionally, there was even whitebait. Steaks tended to be accompanied by three button mushrooms. Best of all, however, were the puddings. They came on a trolley. I could spend hours choosing which gloopy confection I was going to have.

These days, of course, I know better. Ronay, inventor and publisher of the famous eating-out guides, is the man who put rosettes into eating, that we might all be a little more judicious in our restaurant-going (it wasn't his fault that the nation's restaurateurs were a little slow to catch on). The surprise, however, is that he is still going strong, more than 27 years after he first launched his pithy criticisms on an unsuspecting world. He works at a smart address in Knightsbridge, just behind Harrods - his driver brings him here every morning from his house in Berkshire where he lives with his second wife, Barbara - and he still has his manicured fingers in an awful lot of pies. It took me a while even to get hold of him on the phone; his lunches seem to go on forever.

I ring the bell, and his secretary opens the door. Inside, it is gloomy but, behind a vast desk, I can see Ronay. He is a small, dapper man (suit, tie, shiny shoes), and I have a feeling he is rather vain. Boy, is he coy about his age. He has only agreed to meet me at all because I have promised not to reveal it, and he will not actually tell me the year he was born, not even off the record. I smile a little at this, imagining him slathering on the cold cream before he trundles off to bed, but Egon does not consider it a laughing matter. 'It is not vanity,' he says. 'You may think that, but it isn't. I simply don't want people to think that I have one foot in the grave.' You will be pleased to hear that, after 57 years in London, his Hungarian accent is still as deliciously warming as a bowl of goulash.

I love his sitting room: a Seventies affair, preserved in aspic. There are patterned yellow floor tiles, toffee-coloured leather sofas and a chocolate-boxy portrait of a woman with cat's eyes and backcombed hair. His secretary appears with a coffee tray. The cups are matt brown with a white stripe, like something out of The Ice Storm - fabulous! - and, on a small plate, is a selection of those sugary Danish biscuits grannies always give you for Christmas. Ronay pours the coffee, which is thick and strong, and, before I can stop him, he begins heaping brown sugar into my cup. One, two, three... 'That's enough!' I cry. 'Are you sure?' he says, looking mystified. He then adds most of the EU sugar mountain to his own cup and stirs, round and round.

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Some interviewees you have to prod and poke and cajole; others, you ask a single question and, before you know it, an hour has passed and they haven't stopped talking. Ronay, ever the professional, belongs to the latter group. He places one hand on top of the other and begins, his practised reminiscences. His memory is remarkable. No detail is too small to be passed over, no anecdote too sombre to bear repetition. I suppose this is what happens with legends. All those decades ago, when a dish of eggs mayonnaise was still considered a really classy starter, and steaks were put on the grill before breakfast if they were to be ready in time for dinner, Ronay decided we could - and should - do a lot better. We have a lot to thank him for, and he knows it.

His story begins in Budapest, where his wealthy father, the fifth highest taxpayer in the city, owned five restaurants. Ronay, the only child, had studied for a law degree but it was always a foregone conclusion that he would go into the family business, like his father and grandfather before him. After the war, however, events conspired to put an end to this plan. 'The political situation was terrible. The Russians were in charge, and my father lost everything. We saw no future at all. My father was penniless, I was penniless. So, on 10 October, 1946, I came to England. Alone.' Not that he was entirely without a safety net. 'A friend of my father's made me a manager at his restaurant in Piccadilly, so I can't say that I started at the bottom. I must have been the youngest general manager in England.'

But he was itching to get his own place and, after a stint at the Princes restaurant in Piccadilly and Carousel Club in St James's, he borrowed £4,000 and took over a tea room by Harrods, which he called the Marquee. A carpenter of his acquaintance turned the room, bizarrely, into something resembling a large tent - hence the name - and he imported a chef from Beaulieu. 'We could seat only 39 people,' he says, a fond smile creeping over his face. On the menu were classics unheard of in Fifties London: pté de campagne, matelote d'anguille and bouillabaisse. 'Yes, the food was outstanding. In those days, there were only two restaurant columns of any note. One was in The Tatler , the other was in the Daily Telegraph and was written by Fanny Cradock. Anyway, she came with her husband, Johnny, and she went completely overboard about us.'

Soon after, Cradock's editor came in for dinner and, having introduced herself, told Ronay that the paper, in conjunction with the BBC, was setting up a Brains Trust to travel the country; highbrow discussions would be followed by one of Fanny's cookery demos. She asked Egon to join, and he agreed. One night, in a provincial hotel, she asked him what he thought of dinner. 'I said it was a bad combination, and I explained why. She said: "We must have this in the paper." She tried to persuade me for a week. At first, I stuck fast: no way. In the end, though, I gave in and began a weekly column that ran for six years. During that time, in 1957, I started the Egon Ronay Guide . The first edition sold 30,000 copies. It was incredible.'

With the help of a team of anonymous inspectors, Ronay ran the guide for the next three decades - and, to this day, it is still his proudest boast that he has never accepted free hospitality, not even from friends in the business. So what was food like in those dreary early years? 'You could eat well in London,' he says. 'But in extremely few places: the Coq D'Or, the Savoy Grill, the Buttery at the Berkeley Hotel. Lower down the scale, the Lyons Corner Houses were good.' But to illustrate the patchiness, he tells me a story about how appalled he was to be asked to share a spoon (and on a string, too) after ordering a cup of tea at Victoria Station buffet. And outside London? He groans in the manner of Bela Lugosi, and pulls a grim face.

Ronay lost control of the guides in 1985, when he sold them to the AA. He did this because he had started to find the whole enterprise so vast and exhausting but, alas, eventually came to regret this decision. In 1992, the AA sold the guides to the Richbell Group. 'These people ran the guide entirely differently, and the company went bankrupt, even though when I sold up the circulation was more than double that of other books such as the Michelin. Anyway, my big problem was that, in spite of all this, they still carried my name. So I went to the high court and, to cut a long story short, they gave my name back to me.' He does not publish a guide at the moment, though he is toying with the idea of starting up again. 'Nothing is definite, but I am actively working on it right now. It's more than just plans.' Meanwhile, he devotes himself to consultancy work. Currently, his biggest client is Weatherspoons, the pub chain (hmm - still a bit of work to do there, then).

When does he think our eating habits began to change in earnest? 'Well, first Elizabeth David came along and kindled everyone's interest. But also, it was sociological. The upper classes, the people with money to spend on food, had their big houses and staff and they didn't go out much. Then, in the late Sixties, the people who started to earn money were photographers and and actors and they wanted to spend it in restaurants.' Ronay has a nose for talent and was an early champion of Marco Pierre White and Raymond Blanc. These days, he considers Gordon Ramsay to be the best chef in Britain, and by some distance. 'I like Marcus Wareing, too, though the Savoy is not what it was.'

But, as he has watched us fall out of love with prawn cocktail, so he has seen us replace one set of deficiencies with another. Service, he thinks, is still a problem because it is alien to our culture. Moreover, as our palates and cookery books have grown ever more sophisticated, we have begun turning our noses up at good, simple food. 'It won't be many years before food in this country is better than it is in France,' he says. 'But there is an annoying new trend for over-complicated menus that are anything but customer friendly. They read like recipes, with the result that you choose halibut and then fail to find it on your plate. It's even hard to get a decent dessert: instead, you get a sculpture. It's ridiculous.'

Ronay, the once impoverished émigré, has made quite a life for himself here. He has won numerous awards, knows all the right people, and his family is at the epicentre of fashionable London life; his daughter is Edina Ronay, the fashion designer, and his granddaughter, Shebah, is the writer and girl-about-town who dates the portrait painter, Jonathan Yeo (they are expecting their first baby). How does he feel in his bone marrow - British or Hungarian? Is his comfort food still the walnut noodles and Transylvanian stuffed cabbage whose homely virtues he extols in his 1989 cookery book, The Unforgettable Dishes of My Life ? 'No,' he says, looking just a little put out. 'My home is here.'

He did not return to Hungary for 37 years, and has not been back since. 'I had a wonderful childhood. Budapest was a marvellous city. But after I left, I wanted to forget it. Finally, I did return, but it was really traumatic. I have no ties there now.' His true comfort foods, he tells me, are pheasant and venison. 'I love game, but they no longer hang it properly.'

It is time for me to go now. Ronay is a busy man - it was difficult even for us to find an hour in common - and no doubt he has a lunch booked. He jumps up, tiptoes jauntily back behind his desk, and asks me if I would like a copy of his book. When I tell him that I already have one (I have spent many happy hours examining the endearingly hilarious photographs of jars of sauerkraut, which are the kind of snaps Martin Parr would take if he got into kitchens), he looks disappointed. Still, no matter. Perhaps he can give me something else instead. He asks his secretary to bring me a copy of his CV. Back home, I read it. It is long and very impressive. His date of birth, however, is conspicuous by its absence.

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