The restaurant whisperer
Seven steps to eating-out success
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 The notion that specials are cobbled together from what wasn’t sold the day before is so outdated as to be comical, and horsetrading with sommeliers is as surefire a way to kill dinner as going to a steakhouse with a vegan.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’.
SAY IF YOU’RE UNHAPPY WITH SOMETHING
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.