The first thing we would do on returning, sometimes not even stopping to drop the suitcases back home, was go to the Agra, round the back of the Post Office Tower, to eat tandoori.
As an adult, I still love restaurants. The magic of a restaurant occasion is why I started a supper club, I liked it so much I made a ‘pretend’ restaurant in my house.
But there are few restaurants that I visit regularly. I don’t go as much as other bloggers, unless there is something specific that interests me. Often I think, I could make this better at home. In fact I can’t think of anything worse than only eating in restaurants. When I’ve been on holiday where I have no access to a kitchen, I get desperate to cook. Restaurant food alone is not sufficiently nutritious. It is over-handled by chefs, portion control is often stringent to the point of absurdity, and you’d be surprised by how much they buy in: bread, icecream, chocolate decorations for desserts, fresh pasta, puff pastry, pickles and sauces. My most asked question in restaurants? Did you make it? Is this home-made?
Loud music in restaurants, I always feel, is there for the benefit of the staff not guests. The music is to energize the staff, to make them feel their workplace is ‘fun’. But what about the guests? If I’m going to a restaurant with someone else I probably want to talk to them. Only very low background music is acceptable in certain types of restaurant. We aren’t going to a disco.
In The Spaghetti Tree, a book about the ‘trattoria’ revolution in 60s London dining, the famed restaurant designer Enzo Apicella declares: ‘In Italy it’s frowned upon… restaurants play pop or jazz because, it is supposed, it makes people eat faster, so they leave the place faster and can be replaced by new customers.’
And what about people with hearing problems? My mum is very deaf and she selects a restaurant based on acoustics, not food. For example, I enjoyed the food at MEATliquor, but the music was deafening, auditory water-boarding. I feel sure that it interferes with your taste buds. I like to concentrate on my food.
2) Topping up wine glasses
This is upselling the wine. They are doing this because making you buy another bottle of wine is an easy buck for a restaurant. I loathe it. I’m an adult and can top up my own wine thank you very much. It irritates me, this force-feeding of booze. Most people like to keep an eye on how much they are drinking. Three drinks is my maximum.
3) Small portions
Two examples: I went to Made in Italy in Kings Road recently. I had a spaghetti vongole, priced as a main course not as a starter (primi piatti), which couldn’t have had more than 60g of cooked pasta. That’s not a main meal.
At Pollen St Social, I ordered the much recommended burrata salad, I was shocked how stingy they were with the cheese, it was the size of a walnut rather than an apple.
Many of the fashionable restaurants give you smears and droplets rather than sauces. This makes it hard to eat, difficult to lift off the plate.
4) No bread
I judge a restaurant by its bread. If a restaurant has good bread, you can more or less forgive them any other failing. If you have to buy it, buy the very very best.
5) No vegetarian options
Even though I occasionally eat fish, I will often order the vegetarian menu, to see what they can drum up, without the easy option of meat and fish. I’ve rarely been impressed. So often it is yesterdays left-overs, wrapped in puff pastry. Or a risotto. Or beetroot. Yawn. Carnivores can’t cook for vegetarians; the flavours are underpowered. My friend Les Wong often won’t go with me to a restaurant ‘you can only eat the sides’. That is a typically carnivore-centric attitude. I’m happy with sides.
6) No reservation
This is Russell Norman’s technique and it has caught on. I remember waiting an hour and a half to be seated at the old Polpetto and then getting a bad table. Russell said to me “I don’t want people from the provinces to be reserving tables. I want young workers from Soho. So I won’t allow reservations”. I then had to put up with snotty staff and loud music. It’s a shame because the food was so good.
No reservations makes money for the restaurateur: to keep people hanging around in the bar spending money on drink while they wait.
I will not stand outside in a queue for the privilege of spending my money in your restaurant if you won’t allow reservations.
7) Bar stools
I like sitting down. Properly. With my feet touching the ground.
Again, this is a profit boosting strategy: if you aren’t comfortable, you will eat up more quickly and they can turn tables (or bar places) faster. McDonalds started it in the 70s with an extreme version: these were not just bar stools, but were tilted so that you couldn’t sit in them, you just propped a section of your bum onto the ledge.
If you are going to have bar stools, perhaps because of a genuine lack of space, at least have a rung where small people (like women) can put their feet and handbag hooks attached to the bar so that it isn’t stolen and is easy to reach.
8) Snotty staff and tips
One of the reasons I love restaurant critic Marina O’Loughlin’s columns, apart from the honest and witty writing, is that she is anonymous. Hence she often gets the crappy seat that is so often assigned to the unimportant guest. Revealing. Here is a guide to the best tables at top London restaurants by critic Richard Vines.
Tips. I usually pay 10%. I didn’t like it when they automatically added service then left a gap for you to pay more service but that seems to have fallen into disuse now. In the States it is a ridiculous competition as to who can pay bigger tips but it’s generally about 20%. In France service is included.
9) Free services – cover charge, tap water, wifi
Cover charges tend to be a European thing, unpopular in the UK. Rowley Leigh used to have a cover charge, for bread, radishes and butter at Le Cafe Anglais but discontinued it after complaints. Is it to make sure that customers spend a certain minimum? Is it to pay for laundry, which can be 10% of a restaurants profits? (Although tablecloths seem to be a thing of the past, except in posh places).
In London today, most restaurants will give you tap water. Much of Europe, however, they have the same attitude as British restaurants did before 2010. It’s now law that you can request a glass of tap water.
Wifi: every bar and restaurant should have free wifi. It’s not an issue for me in the UK as I have a UK phone, but abroad, it’s a nightmare. Even hotels still act like giving you wifi is a privilege you should pay for. Tourists need wifi. I’ll often go eat in a restaurant purely because it has free internet, like the Wimpy bar in Maun, Botwana.
10) Dreary desserts
So many dessert menus are uninspiring. I think pudding is when the diner reverts to tradition, an urge that must be satisfied, even if one is quite happy to be modernist and experimental with the rest of the menu. I think any pudding list should have:
- a chocolatey thing
- a fruity dish
- an icecream
- something meringue
- something with salted caramel
- something citrussy
- something cakey
I think it was Gordon Ramsay that said pudding was the most important course in a restaurant meal, it’s the last impression one has of a restaurant.
But one pet hate: tiramisu. Who likes tiramisu? It’s like the Bounty Bar of desserts, only weirdos like them.
So what gets your goat about restaurants? What rules do you have?