The Sunday Telegraph - Sunday
Spare me from menu apps and online booking
As the search for 2023’s Best Local Restaurants is launched, William Sitwell ponders what makes a good dining experience
Attacking me from behind, lying in wait for me and coming at me from right and left. Your restaurant critic is under siege. Now, you might think it a most glorious attack: tasting menus, wine flights, glass cloches filled with pine-scented smoke, more genuflecting waiters than you can throw a linen napkin at and QR codes that beam the wine list straight to your Apple Watch. But I feel I’m being drowned in a swamp of provenance lectures and digital distractions, and if my brain doesn’t force a placard-waving protest, the acid in my longsuffering gut will take affirmative, unpleasant action.
So what a tonic it was this week to see The Good Food Guide launch its search for 2023’s Best Local Restaurants. Nominated by you, not a cabal of on-trend digital creators and self-regarding critics (yup, expense-submitting wretches like me) and their cheffy mates. Celebrating “independently run” places, “rooted in the local community”, that give customers a “genuine, warm welcome”. Decent, dependable, affordable joints, in other words.
For there may be a cost of living crisis in the UK but, bizarrely, a large part of the hospitality sector doesn’t seem to have noticed. It’s as if it lurched from protestations of near massacre during the Covid pandemic (very effective mind you: remember the rates holidays and Rishi’s passionate demand that we “eat out to help out”), to a finedining feeding frenzy. It’s not called fine dining, of course, that would be off-trend. It’s all casual launches these days: trainers and ripped jeans ushered in like royalty and tablecloths spurned (pity the poor laundry businesses decimated by our nation’s latent obsession for leaning our elbows on wood), but the bill is pretty “fine dining”; in so many places today you’ll get little change for dinner for two with drinks and service from two hundred and fifty-worth of your hard-earned sterling.
Then there are the infernal digital hurdles. Just imagine a world where to book a table at a restaurant you can just phone them. No online booking systems that claim to only have a table at 6.30pm or 9pm, but in actuality, as you discover when you eat there, did in fact have several tables for two at 8pm. Where that booking service doesn’t demand credit card details and up-front deposits and then email insistences that you
confirm followed, after the event, by more messages – on text and email – requesting that you rate and review the wretched place (don’t worry, I’ve got that one covered, tee hee hee). Imagine a place that doesn’t insist you break the rules of civil behaviour by getting out your phone to scan a QR code so you can access the menu online (and, God forbid, order online not via a waiter).
It makes me long for the 1970s, to wish I’d lived through that decade as an adult, the greatest 10 years in the past 100 surely? Grown-up politicians, no daytime telly, fantastic fashion, decent pubs and plenty of perfectly OK little restaurants. And, yes, maybe the rubbish was piling up high in the streets, but you could sit in a restaurant getting squiffy on a Tuesday afternoon and your office wouldn’t mind because you were probably with them.
For me, the neighbourhood restaurant, the local gem, is a last bastion of civilisation. It represents so much of what is the essential antidote to the modern world. Indeed it surprises me that Michelin, always so keen for publicity, still desperate to flog those tires, gets the zeitgeist so wrong by heralding its stars rather than its more grounded and laudable Bib Gourmand awards, which recognise “good quality, good value cooking”. This year, Bibs went to Flint House in Brighton, the Pelican in London, Marmo in Bristol and, hallelujah,
Emilia in Ashburton in Devon.
I went all lip-quiveringly emotional as I heralded the latter in this newspaper last year. Forget the Waitrose effect, I’m sure house prices have soared in the Devon town since Clare Lattin and business partner Tom Hill opened this perfect little establishment last summer. It has so many of the accoutrements of what I see as great hospitality: it’s very welcoming; it’s tiny – you might find yourself bunched up against a stranger at the big wooden table (don’t be scared, you can also get a table for two); there’s a modest menu of robust Italian-inspired dishes, a chalkboard of the day’s specials, a tight wine cellar, puddings advertising themselves on the kitchen counter (on the day I visited it was a wonderfully large apple tart, a russet apple crostata), excellent professional service and a very reasonable bill (under £40 per head for three courses).
Isn’t that what you really want from a restaurant? But, of course, not long after releasing its Bib Gourmand list there was Michelin sating the fevered desires of the cheffing world with new stars. There was the little red book slobbering over Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester (a place with less heart and soul than an empty snail shell), the 30-course, four-hour culinary torture that is Ynyshir in Wales, and Timberyard in Edinburgh. An experience at the latter I summed up in January 2022 as a “brutal massage”.
Now vying for the guide’s attention is a flood of new places from London to Liverpool, Leith to Land’s End, where a booking sees you mugged and subjected to a gastronomic kidnap; that no-choice tasting menu, wine flight and too-bloody-long explanations from the waiter pointing to every little nugget on your plate and giving the life story of each hand-dived scallop and the sustainable charcoal over which it was charred. That, and a raft of other stuff that my dream local establishment shuns.
A place where there’s no spiel with each course, just a plate of simple, pretty food. Where you’re allowed to pour your own wine, where there are just three, not eight, 18 or 30, courses, a restaurant that’s perfect for special occasions and quick bites, and where the cost wouldn’t shock Elon Musk.
OK, so I’m still searching for such an establishment near me (Taunton, if you can’t deliver I’ll have to do it myself ), but if you’ve got such an establishment near you, embrace, hug, hold it close, champion it, tell The Good Food Guide and make sure the chef doesn’t get bored, nationally competitive and start introducing some of the above horrors.
Of course, a thriving nation like ours needs a great array of choice, of restaurants of every kind and style and, yes, there’s no harm done with the odd dalliance of culinary theatrics. I do marvel at the great array of cooking talent across the country. But we’ll only be a truly great nation of food and drink when there’s an Emilia in every town …