Eating out costs but it’s not a sin: don’t moan about the price
Don’t moan about the restaurant bill, we should be paying more
How much are you willing to pay for someone else to cook your dinner, bring it to you in a nice room and then do the washing up? If recent news is anything to go by the answer is: nowhere near enough. Jamie Oliver is to close a dozen branches of his Italian chain, and flog his upmarket Barbacoa grills. Bang go a bunch of Stradas, bang go 20 Byrons, bang go 100 Prezzos. And alongside the chains there are myriad independents calling it a day. The ice buckets are overflowing with blood.
It wasn’t meant to be like this. Us modern Brits were meant to have become like the French and Italians; a cosmopolitan, gastronomically literate nation who understood the difference between polenta and couscous; for whom restaurant going had become an ingrained habit. Report after report said so. They talked about “long-term demographic and consumer trends”. And yet the economics tell another, more brutal story. We aren’t prepared to pay enough for it. We aren’t prepared to pay enough for the people cooking the food to be paid a decent wage for working reasonable hours.
The use of the word “we” is unfair, of course. Generalisations always are, though I can be forgiven for making them. Every week, below the line on my restaurant review, someone pops up to complain about the price of the meal (even when it’s a £20-for-two pie shop). Apparently, it’s an obscenity for anyone to spend money like this in restaurants when there are people feeding themselves from food banks, despite that being about a deformed economic system, not the price of a steak. They argue that they could feed their family for a week on the cost of the reviewed meal, or easily make it at home for a quarter of the price.
Ibecame so fed up of replying individually to these comments that I wrote a lengthy, all-points rebuttal and posted it to my website. My plan is to post the link beneath each price whinge. To kick off I tweeted the link. The response was heartening. The tweet was liked more than 2,700 times, and retweeted nearly 1,000. At last count, roughly 50,000 people had read the post. There were dozens of comments and all but one was supportive.
Hurrah! Everybody agrees with me! Except they don’t. The internet We W aren’t prepared to pay enough for the chefs to be paid a decent wage is a brilliant echo chamber, forever reinforcing our own world view. If everybody really did agree with me, if everybody really was willing to pay the true cost of a restaurant meal in the UK, so many places wouldn’t be closing. I wouldn’t receive emails from young chefs, desperate about the appalling hours they are expected to work for such lousy pay.
It is, at base, an old-fashioned culture war. I often make a comparison with sport. Football fans may complain about the price of going to see a Premier League game, but no one criticises them for willingly paying that price. Paying to watch your team play is somehow authentic and real. Going for dinner and paying equivalent money for the pleasure is seen by so many as poncey and self-indulgent and perhaps even degenerate. How dare you fill your belly and pay money for it.
We can point to various causes of the restaurant industry trauma: businessrate rises, Brexit-inspired workforce shortages, food-price inflation. But it comes down to this. Britain isn’t the great cosmopolitan nation it imagines itself to be. Not enough people are willing to pay for the good stuff. It’s a crying shame.