October 31, 2014
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Guest Post: Patrick On The Difficultiess Of Accessing The West End

Thanks to Patrick for sending us this post on accessing the West End. He’s given his verdict on a host of different London theatres here.

The standard of access for people in a wheelchair to the West End Theatres is generally pretty grim. Steps everywhere and very little chance of finding any disabled toilets. Do bear in mind that they were built in the 19th Century when disabled access was not something that was considered. I do not use a wheelchair instead I use a very light mobility scooter and can walk a short distance.

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Access at the Southbank, NT, Young Vic are good, never visited the Old Vic. The bigger West End theatres are much better, never tried the opera houses. The Whyndham theatre has two little boxes that provide Access from the street. That’s good but I suffer from Uhtoffs syndrome and after a show my body temperature has increased and this affects the use of my legs.

Noel Coward theatre staff are very helpful but wheelchair access is a non-starter. Some theatres have a side entrance that is at pavement level but to my knowledge every West End theatre will have steps inside the building and no lift.

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O2 stadium is good on wheelchair access as is the Royal Albert Hall.

For more information on many of the theatres listed here, plus others (including some more positive access stories), check out our reviews of individual venues. If you want to contribute your own verdict please get in touch!

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October 30, 2014
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Our Trip To Madrid – A Great City But It’s A Real Shame You Have To Be So Atletico To Get Into Most Buildings

It seems we’ve covered the Blue Badge Style award winning journey to Madrid in every which way by now, but one thing we haven’t really had time to do is review our trip and assess the access. Fiona, The American Lieutenant, Amanda the Commanda and myself had a brief but eventful stay in the city.  It was a business trip to take part (and win!) the European Investment Bank’s Social Innovation Tournament, so we didn’t have time for any sightseeing, but we did have time to visit some restaurants that are worth mentioning and we did learn a few things about accessibility in and getting to the grand Spanish capital.

Madrid's city lights, Madrid car rental

We flew British Airways and the service was fine through the airport and up to the point that we actually got on the plane. They were unable to lift the seat rests in the aisle seat and therefore couldn’t make a spacious enough route for Fiona to transfer into her seat. The staff seemed new to this problem – which is odd since apparently you can never lift this arm rests – but they handled it with poise and charm. Eventually it was decided that the only thing to do was offer Fiona a free upgrade to Club Level. On the way back home she was taken straight to Club. All’s well that ends well, you could say.

Another slight hiccup followed on arrival at Madrid-Barajas. It’s a surprisingly long way from the plane to the airport exit, including a shortish underground train journey. When we arrived Fiona was told that wheelchairs weren’t allowed on the train and was taken another route. This was no great problem as the young man who assisted her was exceptionally helpful and friendly but it did seem strange considering there is a wheelchair space provided on the train. The day we flew back to London it was apparently fine for wheelchair users to take this train. “The rules change everyday” said the assistant that day. It just goes to show that, as much as you can plan, for a less able traveller when flying you really do need to be patient and prepared for anything.

Not sure how much we 'like' the disabled access changing every day

Not sure how much we ‘like’ the disabled access changing every day

We stayed at the InterContinental on the Paseo de la Castellana which really was an ideal location for us as it was only a five minute walk up to the IE building where we spent most of our time. The InterContinental is a bona fide five star hotel with marble floors and chandeliers downstairs and comfortable but impressive rooms upstairs. We were lucky enough to be given access to the Club Floor Lounge which was a stylish place to relax with free food and drink. Overall this was a classy hotel with a traditional feel that won’t let you down or surprise you in any way (bad or good).

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The hotel had good disabled facilities, as you’d expect from a grand five star hotel. The entrance is step free and once inside there are lifts to take you to either of the two adapted guest rooms for less able visitors. These have wet room showers with all the necessary grab rails and are conveniently (reasonably) close to the lifts. The main lift does not go to the floor the bar is on so to get to the bar you have to return to the ground floor lobby and take a separate lift for wheelchair access. We didn’t go into the garden terrace but there is a ramp in that space too. The staff were also excellent and were a great help throughout our stay both in terms of making access easier and helping out more generally. They were always on hand to book cabs, lend us ties and much more. We just about give them the full 3 BBS Ticks as it’s really hard to fault.

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On our first night, we’d arrived in the evening and just wanted somewhere quick and easy to go to eat and asked the staff for a recommendation. They suggested we try out José Luis, a nearby tapas bar within walking distance of the hotel. When we got there we felt that this was perhaps not the world’s best suggestion as it wasn’t the most accessible building, with a couple of steps at the entrance, but they were able to help us in and we would later realise that this is very much the norm in Madrid – ‘accessible’ buildings were rarely step free but the people who worked there were in our experience always able to help wheelchair users inside. Maybe this is just how waiters keep fit in Madrid?

No stairlift but a human lift provided

No stairlift but a human lift provided

The tapas was simple but very tasty. We enjoyed ourselves, after a long day’s travelling, tucking into uncomplicated classics like croquettes, calamari and bean and chorizo stew. These were very basic dishes, well made – even something as ordinary as the tortilla was light, fluffy and enjoyable. It was a good quality meal but not really anything to write home about (were it not for the the demands of this job). Seeing Time Out refer to the José Luis as “one of the most famous tapas bars in Madrid” makes me wonder if we’re talking about the same place. It’s more the kind of place you’d recommend to someone who was in the area and feeling peckish, than somewhere to seek out. Nice enough but the access wasn’t great, so we’d give them 1 BBS Tick.

Lovely tortilla but very simple - The American Lieutenant even claimed that he could make it himself!

Lovely tortilla but very simple – The American Lieutenant even claimed that he could make it himself!

There was a similar problem getting into the building for dinner the next evening at El Chiscón Castelló (although by this time we’d begun to appreciate that this would be a regular occurrence throughout our trip – seldom was a ramp available and never a portable one). El Chiscon is a old style Spanish restaurant with a very traditional feel. In an building that was once used to store charcoal, the intimate dining room almost feels like they’ve just set up a restaurant in their house.

The food really suits this vibe with delicious, hearty dishes and classic Basque food. We started off with brilliant platters of ham and anchoives – showing you don’t have to try too hard when you source top quality ingredients – before enjoying monkfish, veal and roast beef and finishing off with home made ice cream. All was exquisite and we’d recommend the food, if not the disabled access. We had a great meal but rules are rules so and we give them a solitary 1 BBS Tick. It’s a real shame there was no adapted toilet.

 El Chiscón Castelló

El Chiscón Castelló

On our final day in Madrid, we wandered around the city’s ‘posh shops’ with the plan to stumble upon somewhere nice to eat. The Taberna Los Gallos caught are eye in part because of its relaxed sun soaked terrace but also because of its logo – for anyone who’s seen Breaking Bad the image may look familiar. We arrived for lunch just before two and restaurant terrace was completely empty, but by the time we left it was absolutely buzzing with people, which felt very continental and clearly this was a trendy place to go.

Los Pollos Hermanos much?

Los Pollos Hermanos much?

We started with a delicious plate of various mushrooms and chopped ham to share along with tomato soaked break (not bruschetta; in Spain never bruschetta). The main courses were also excellent, with the fish tartare served with guacamole looking particularly appealing. After our meal the owner came over and spoke to us about the restaurant. He told us that there were actually several floors to the Taberna Los Gallos and that there is a lift to all of them. There was no disabled toilet at the time but one was being fitted soon as the building was currently being worked on. We’d have to go back to confirm this, which we wouldn’t mind at all. 2 BBS Ticks for now though.

Taberna Los Gallos

Taberna Los Gallos

For a good deal of our time in Madrid we were fortunate that the places we needed to go were within walking/wheeling distance of our hotel. But when we did have longer journeys we called ahead for a taxi. This is important to do because unless you specifically book an accessible taxi you won’t get one. We were lucky again that we Amanda the Commanda and her fluent Spanish on hand to make booking cabs a smooth operation but if you ask a waiter or hotel concierge they should be able to fix you up. On one occasion we used a black cab but with most of the accessible cabs in Madrid the ramp is at the back.

All in all, Madrid had its accessibility quirks. The continual need to find a way to get wheelchair users up stairs is problematic but you couldn’t fault the staff anywhere for their attitudes. We greatly enjoyed our time there which was only enhanced by winning the Social Innovation Award!

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October 28, 2014
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The St. Moritz Hotel – Two Points Of View On This Lovely And Accessible Cornish Haven

We were invited to a wedding in Trebetherick, Cornwall a few weeks ago so we booked a double room and an evening meal, nearby, at the St. Moritz Hotel. This is a lovely hotel and Cowshed spa hidden away down country lanes in the beautiful Cornwall countryside. I instantly knew we were going to enjoy our stay because I liked the “feel” of the place just driving up to the entrance. Parking is right outside reception, with two less abled parking bays to the side of the main entrance.

Entering the reception area I noticed that it was a level entrance with no carpet. The staff were very helpful and check-in was easy and hassle free. After dumping our bags in the well appointed room, we decided to explore the hotel and have a well deserved drink. The bar and restaurant area is accessed either by stairs or lift from reception, all floors are un-carpeted and there is free and easy access to all areas including the less abled WC.

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I asked if I could view the less abled room and was shown to a suite and a double room. The suite was fantastic, it had a bed hoist fixed to the ceiling and the rail went through to a large bath/shower room. The ceiling rail had a mechanism so you could divert the hoist to the bath or shower. It also had a full body length air dryer along with hand rails galore. I must say that this is one of the best equipped less abled bath/shower rooms I have ever seen. The double room was also very well kitted out with plenty of room to manoeuvre a wheelchair and a large shower room.

We did not use the Cowshed spa but I was assured that they could accommodate anyone who wished to use the spa. We did however use the swimming pool and that is totally accessible with a hoist into the pool and a less abled WC.

We had a great evening meal created by head chef Jamie Porter, then retired to the bar for a nightcap. There is also an outside pool with a restaurant and changing cabins.

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While we were staying at the St. Moritz we ran into Alun – another guest at the hotel – who uses a wheelchair and we had a chat about Blue Badge Style. Alun seemed to be a fan and graciously offered to write us a review of his stay at the hotel. Here’s his verdict: 

“As disabled friendly and stylish accommodation goes, you could not find much better than the St. Moritz and its perfect North Cornwall location.

From the moment you arrive, it is obvious that disabled guests are not an afterthought. The disabled parking bays are immediately adjacent to the reception and accommodation, with easy flat access to both. The greeting upon arrival was as warm and friendly as had been the exchanges by email, and over the phone, prior to our visit. As a potential guest in a wheelchair, there is always a little bit more information required, which was understood completely by the reservation team, even sending mobile phone pictures of the bathroom to show how the shower seat was set up! Nothing was to much trouble.

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The bedroom was a little small perhaps, but had everything needed for a weekend break. The bathroom was clean and bright, and most importantly, was properly set up as a wet room for the disabled guest, with grabs and rails in all the right places.

We enjoyed fabulous weather for our weekend, but as the accommodation is separate to the hotels indoor facilities, and requires a short walk (or push) between the two, it might not be so pleasant returning to your room on a wet and windy Cornish evening. However, this is a small issue that is more than compensated for by the hotel’s generally excellent accessibility.

The staff were superb. Friendly and helpful at all times, the guest host is a superb idea. The main area of the hotel is completely wheelchair friendly, with a clean and stylish lift that takes you to the heart of the upstairs bar and restaurant area, which is spacious and easy to manoeuvre around in a wheelchair. Access to the outdoor decked areas from the bar area is similarly level and easy. There are spotless disabled WCs on every level.

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We only ate breakfast and an evening snack whilst at the hotel, but both were excellent.

Constructive comments would be that the pea gravel walkway to the outdoor pool area is not the easiest to negotiate in a wheelchair. Perhaps the beautiful new bonded materials that are now available, that give the same effect, but provide easier access (as used in Horatio’s Garden, at Salisbury Spinal Unit) might be worth considering. Whilst perfect for a weekend, the disabled twin room we had would be a little small for a longer stay.

To sum up, if you are looking for accessible stylish accommodation in Cornwall, you will be hard pressed to better this impressive Deco inspired hotel and its ultra friendly staff.

One final tip: this hotel offers everything a family needs to enjoy a wonderful beach style holiday, so if your requirement is for a peaceful weekend …… check your dates!

Would we stay at the St. Moritz again? Absolutely, and we will!”

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There is a level and step free route to the outside decked area and bar

Thanks for the review, Alun. It was lovely to meet you in Cornwall and great to hear from you again. We’re always grateful to receive reviews from our readers and friends!

I highly recommend this hotel if you are in this part of the country and it looks like there’s a definite agreement between myself and Alun on that. This is an excellent, accessible and stylish place for less able holidaymakers. So it’s two thumbs up from both of us and we also award a maximum 3 Blue Badge Style Ticks to The St Moritz Hotel and Cowshed Spa. Well done!

A packed and brilliant field of finalists!

October 26, 2014
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A Remarkable Journey – Victory For Blue Badge Style At The Social Innovation Tournament

On the 16th of October, in Madrid, Blue Badge Style won the Special Category Prize on urban environment at The Social Innovation Tournament. The tournament sponsors entrepreneurs whose primary purpose is to generate a social, ethical or environmental impact across Europe and we’re honoured to have picked up the prestigious award.

It was a remarkable point in the Blue Badge Style journey, a journey you could trace all the way back to 25 years ago when Fiona started falling out of her high heels in bars – a sign that she might have multiple sclerosis rather than merely one too many cocktails. Maybe the real starting point was when she set up the Blue Badge Style website. Or when the team grew and the American Lieutenant and Amanda the Commanda decided to come on board and collaborate with her. Perhaps things really started when the app launched. Or even when the first PAD was produced.

There are a lot of possible starting points to this journey but possibly the best place to start this particular exciting and award winning step in our journey would be last May at a quiet meeting in a quiet pub - The Cricketers on Kew Green to be precise.

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Some of the Blue Badge Style online team had met up there for one of our semi-regular, informal editorial meetings. We tend to meet every month or so to discuss what we should be thinking about covering on the website – major events that we can tie in with, the best new bars and restaurants, what’s going on at BBS Towers etc – we’ve posted over 1,000 articles now so it’s a welcome chance to brainstorm new ideas and make sure we’re not covering old ground.

Somewhere between talking about off-road wheelchairs, whether the disabled pound should be purple or blue and who we thought would win the World Cup, Fiona’s phone went off.

“Oh my god. I’ve just got an email saying we’re in the final of the European Investment Bank’s Social Innovation Tournament.”

Not having taken any of that in, I asked how hot the wasabi peas were (pub grub is not what it used to be).

“Are you listening? I just said we made it to the final of a European wide tournament. We’re going to Madrid.”

“Wow.” I exclaimed… “They are hot.”

Finally my brain managed to engage and it dawned on me what Fiona was saying. “Really? That’s amazing! What do we do next?”

The Cricketers in Kew

The Cricketers in Kew

The Social Innovation Tournament was created in 2012, by the European Investment Bank Institute to reward and promote innovative initiatives with an ethical or environmental impact in the fight against social exclusion. Fifteen projects from 171 proposals, submitted by applicants from 26 countries, were selected for this year’s final in Madrid with two sponsorships of €25,000 given to the winners of the main competition and the winners of the special category and a further €10,000 awarded to second place at stake. Each finalist would pitch to a panel of seven social innovation specialists who would then decide who would win first and second prizes as well as the winners of the special category.

But before attending the final in Madrid, there was the bootcamp stage of the tournaent, run by the European Entrepreneurship Foundation and held in the ‘accessibility challenged’ city of Budapest. We stayed at the Kempinski hotel which was had all the required facilities for disabled guests, but much of the rest of the city was not quite so well designed. Going into the bootcamp, we believed that we were going to learn more about Budapest’s access than about presenting Blue Badge Style, but we couldn’t have been more wrong. It was an incredibly useful two days of intense workshopping, pitching and mentoring, full of invaluable lessons.

This was a gruelling two days, sweating it out in hot conditions as our perceptions of how we should be presenting our businesses were completely torn apart. The EEF’s president, Peter Záboji, was cracking the whip. Peter’s a brilliant mentor with a desire to see new entrepreneurs succeed but he has a very honest, no holds barred approach. He wasn’t afraid to tell you if you’re wrong and was willing to upset people as long as it was for the right reasons. He also has an enthusiasm for a glass of Rioja which we share and admire.

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Làszlò Bacsa, the head of Demola Budapest, was an equally crucial part of our Social Innovation experience. He’s a man of few words but when he says something you know it will be worth listening to his incisive insights. Budapest was also the first time we came face to face with the redoubtable Luisa Ferreira, who had beautifully masterminded the tournament’s organisation. We had to marvel at her ability to keep on top of so many different things going on around her, yet remain impeccably stylish at the same time.

Meeting the other finalists, all of whom oozed entrepreneurial spirit and a youthful (certainly compared to our group) spirit, was another interesting part of bootcamp. There were so many intriguing and useful ideas which made it to the final and it was as vivacious and eager a bunch of people as you’re likely to meet. It was noticeable that, despite obviously wanting to win, there was a real atmosphere of encouragement, with all the finalists seeing each other as colleagues rather than ‘the competition’. It was a hectic couple of days – made even more chaotic by Budapest’s lack of accessible taxis, which lead to us travelling around by ambulance – but a very enjoyable time too.

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The bootcamp had completely destroyed many of our perceptions but it was clear, two months later when we reconvened in Madrid, just how much it had paid off for all the finalists. Everybody had seriously upped their game and no one was in any doubt about it. Tweaks, refinements and indeed wholesale changes had been made to ours and the other finalists’ presentations – the field was, we all agreed, light-years ahead of that which had arrived in Budapest. The final field was extremely strong and we knew that we’d need Fiona and the American Lieutenant to present the pitch of their lives in order to stand a chance.

Like Budapest, like London and like the majority of Europe, we found Madrid to be another city with accessibility challenges.  Much has clearly been done to make public spaces easier to navigate, but there is a long way to go in that regard and we found hospitality venues had different definition of accessible to the one we use.

Many of the places we visited, including the venue for the tournament, had steps at the entrances and although there were always staff on hand to help out, we’d really rather see a ramp. We even had to stay at a different hotel to the other finalists because the suggested hotel didn’t have a fully accessible room. We ended up at the Intercontinental which was very accessible and had a real sophisticated charm. Keep an eye out for more details on this and other venues in Madrid coming in the near future.

Security guards provided - a different approach to accessibility

Security guards provided: “a different approach to accessibility”

Our first day in Madrid was a day of preparation. The second day was the competition itself. Fiona and the American Lieutenant stepped up to the plate to present Blue Badge Style to the team of experienced judges. After an emotional and heartfelt introduction from the AL, Fiona charmed, informed and entertained the audience and judges alike, before expertly fielding questions. She claims not to remember a moment of it, perhaps a result of being ‘in the zone’? As for the AL? Well, he claimed to have seen one or two people in the audience wiping tears from their eyes (a suggestion later backed up with evidence from the judges). After presenting, all any of the fifteen finalists could do was wait for the announcement at a swanky ceremony that evening.

A packed and brilliant field of finalists!

A packed and brilliant field of finalists!

That evening was really something special – drinks and dinner at the glorious Casino de Madrid. For us the cherry on top came after dinner when the tournament winners were announced. None of us could quite believe what we were hearing when the room was told that the winner of the Special Category Prize on urban environment is… Blue Badge Style. This was a genuine shock – not least because we weren’t expecting to even be in the running for the urban environment section of the competition.

We were honestly stunned to have won such an important and prestigious award. Perhaps our more cynical sides should have seen the fact they’d installed a ramp up to the stage as a clue of things to come. On stage Fiona was handed a trophy and a microphone but was lost for words – something that has rarely, if ever, occurred before. It was an amazing feeling but a slightly odd one too as all the other finalists were so deserving and every project was aiming to make society better. In our short time with them we saw so much passion, ingenuity, hard work and goodwill and we wish all of them the best. That’s not to say we weren’t ecstatic to have won, we’ll never forget the standing ovation as Fiona and the AL took the stage.

We want to thank all the judges, the EIB, everyone who has worked towards making Blue Badge Style what it is today and, most importantly, the Blue Badge Style community of readers and users, without whom we would be nothing. With the investment from this tournament win we hope to get more PADs in use, more venues on our app and more people engaging to create a more inclusive society.

The victorious Blue Badge Style Team

The victorious Blue Badge Style Team

At the end of the evening’s festivities we left in a blaze of glory but we departed through the back door. Ironically, the main entrance to the building was not accessible – far from it in fact. The building in which the presentations took place was not step free either. Nor did it have an adapted toilet. This all went to serve as a poignant reminder of how much work there is to do. So yes, it’s been a long journey from that pub garden in Kew to our win in Madrid. It’s an incredible honour and a fitting tribute to this small but committed team who’ve shown that a lot can be achieved with passion, drive and a genuine desire to help people. But we hope it will just be one stage in a longer journey. An early chapter in a longer story.

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After an exiting ceremony, an unceremonious exit

We think this can be the beginning of something important, a leaping off point from where we can help change attitudes towards disability throughout Europe. Blue Badge Style is about more than providing access descriptions – that’s what we do, but what we’re about is more important. We want to provide an outlet and create a community that understands that less able people are defined by more than their impairments, that style and disability need not be mutually exclusive and that a more inclusive society is a better society. Our reviews, articles, PADs and our app are all constituent parts to our simple but powerful ethos of ‘freedom shared’.

Now, with the backing of the European Social Innovation Tournament, it’s time to spread that freedom.

Steps at the entrance but they have a portable ramp

October 23, 2014
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Gymkhana, Mayfair – Another Award Winning Restaurant Without A Disabled Toilet!

Gymkhana is an high class, Michelin starred Indian restaurant which opened just over a year ago in Mayfair. Nine months after they opened for business the restaurant was voted No 1 in the National Restaurant awards, Restaurant magazine’s annual countdown of the top 100 restaurants in the country. This is a startlingly quick rise to the top, but we have to ask why don’t they have an adapted toilet for disabled guests?

Gymkhana is inspired by Colonial Indian gymkhana clubs, set up by the British Raj, where members of high society came to socialise, dine, drink and play sport. This results in a restaurant with the feel of an old Indian colonial club with retro ceiling fans, marble table-tops, and yesteryear photos of polo and cricket teams.  Patron-chef Karam Sethi delivers what Time Out described as “a splendid spread of modern Indian dishes based on regional masalas and marinades”. In The Telegraph, Gymkhana was named “a stunning addition, not just to the posh-curry fraternity, but to the entire restaurant landscape”.

Clearly the food is stratospherically good, but Gymkhana rather lets itself down when it comes to access and facilities for less able customers. On the positive side, they do have a portable ramp which can be put down at the entrance where there are a couple of steps. However, inside they do not have an adapted toilet. They say the ladies toilet is on the ground floor if that helps, but we tend to find that for people looking for a toilet with grab rails etc it doesn’t help much at all.  So reasonably easy to get inside but a let down on the facilities inside.

It’s irritating to see yet another case of a restaurant winning a top award despite not having adequate disabled facilities. We think that if restaurants aren’t made inclusive for all of the population then they should not be eligible for these accolades. Perhaps restaurants’ accessibility should be taken into account as part of these processes? This could also provide added incentive for less accessible restaurants to up their game.

Having said that, despite a heavy deduction for not having an adapted toilet, Gymkhana does still get a provisional 1.5 BBS Ticks. It is a fashionable place to go, the food is of the highest quality and they do at least provide a ramp to enter the building. We just think that accessibility should be a prerequisite at ‘the top restaurant in the country’.