The restau­rant whis­perer

Seven steps to eat­ing-out suc­cess

Red - - CONTENTS -

Imay never know what the right shoes to wear are or who the lat­est break­through grime star is. But I do know restau­rants. And over many years of writ­ing about them (and sim­ply eat­ing in them), I’ve learned how to get the best out of them. I don’t, for in­stance, sub­scribe to Gor­don Ram­say’s sug­ges­tion that you avoid the spe­cials and hag­gle over wine. The no­tion that spe­cials are cob­bled to­gether from what wasn’t sold the day be­fore is so out­dated as to be com­i­cal, and horse­trad­ing with som­me­liers is as sure­fire a way to kill din­ner as go­ing to a steak­house with a ve­gan. So never mind Big Sweary, here are some of my own pearls of culi­nary wis­dom…

FIND THE GOOD GUYS Steer clear of places with fur­ni­ture that looks as though it be­longs in Come Dine With Me: those high-backed ‘pleather’ chairs or sus­pi­ciously uni­form ‘dis­tressed’ cab­i­nets. Th­ese can be bought in bulk from the back of restau­rant in­dus­try mag­a­zines, and if they’re that lazy with the dé­cor, it usu­ally ex­tends to the kitchen, too.

RE­ALLY READ THE MENU Menus that me­an­der all over the globe – from Thai cur­ries to tortellini – are usu­ally re­liant on big food ser­vice com­pa­nies; the good guys will usu­ally have no more than six or seven choices per course and change them reg­u­larly. Menu lan­guage is im­por­tant: if you spot ‘trio of’, or ‘sym­phony of’, run like the wind. See also any ap­pear­ance by mangetout or squig­gles of bal­samic glaze. They de­note a restau­rant lodged firmly in the past – and not in a clas­sic way, more in an Antony Wor­rall Thomp­son, ’90s, oh-god-kiwi-slices-and-coulis way.

USE THE PHONE You can tell a lot about a restau­rant by di­alling their num­ber rather than book­ing via their site. Are they friendly? Help­ful? Ba­sic stuff, but the wel­come starts here. More com­plaints in restau­rants are made about ser­vice than food – the chef could be the great­est thing since sliced sour­dough, but if the wel­come and knowl­edge isn’t there, wave them good­bye.

TALK TO THE STAFF The best staff want you to have a great time, so ask them what’s good. In­stead of be­ing sus­pi­cious of the som­me­lier, en­gage: they love in­tro­duc­ing din­ers to some­thing new. State a bud­get and the kind of thing you usu­ally like and see what hap­pens: no good som­me­lier will use this as an ex­cuse to up­sell.

BE A REG­U­LAR There’s so much chas­ing of the new th­ese days – we’ve got to In­sta­gram that dish! – that it’s easy to forget the joys of be­ing known. Go­ing some­where reg­u­larly en­sures you’ll be treated like a VIP. As an anony­mous critic, I know how it feels to be left out in Siberia, but like they say in Cheers, it’s so much love­lier when ‘ev­ery­body knows your name’.


Restau­rants are del­i­cate ma­chines – things do go wrong. But speak up! A gen­tle in­di­ca­tion to staff that you’re not happy as soon as some­thing ar­rives will al­low them to put things right. Please don’t go down the hor­ri­ble ‘pass-agg’ route of say­ing noth­ing at the time then vent­ing like a loon on­line: it achieves noth­ing other than bad feel­ing all round.

HAVE FUN This is fun­da­men­tal. Whether a street-food taco shack or a multi-miche­lined swankpot, go­ing to restau­rants should be fun. I may not know much, but this much I do.

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