10 Things That Make a Good Restaurant
1. The light fantastic. Food tastes better and wine floods your senses more spectacularly when there are windows around. I can't explain why. Eating lunch while sunlight pours through the glass both lifts your mood and stimulates your taste receptors. Even if it's raining outside, natural light releases little capsule bombs of serotonin inside you. Dining at night in a curtainless eating house, you can enjoy the twinkle and bustle of the street life outside. Eating in a basement, however glamorous or sexily candle-lit, doesn't give your gustatory equipment a chance to shine. Basements are for getting drunk in, for scheming and uttering furtive propositions; from Orso to the Supperclub, they're inimical to the full enjoyment of a good meal.
2. Simplicity. Restaurants used to be shrines to immaculate taste. You could have peeped into the dining rooms of the Ritz or the Savoy any time from the 1910s to 2000 and seen the same white damask napery, cut glass, burnished silver serving dishes, opulent creamy drapes, Sabatier cutlery... Today, we suspect eating houses that come on like shrines. Simple décor is best. Exposed wood and brickwork, original beams and industrial joists are imaginatively pressed into service in new restaurants, with mix 'n' match bone-handled cutlery, or Willow-pattern plates from thrift shops. In The Harwood Arms in Fulham, my favourite gastropub, each artfully distressed pub table carries a small hand-painted jug of wild flowers. In the Blueprint Café, each table by the riverside window is provided with binoculars. These things make a difference.
3. A bit of a buzz. Restaurant reviewers award points for "ambience", and every habitual diner-out knows the value of a little noise with your meal. I don't mean the effortful badinage of theatrical Italians in upscale trattorias. I mean some good music (a bit of The Killers, a soupcon of KD Lang, a touch of Mumford & Sons) played quietly and unobtrusively, and a buzz of easy conversation, the kind conducted by people who know they aren't being overheard. Beware the restaurant where silence rules and the tables are so close together that, by the end of the first course, you know more about your neighbour's yeast infection than you really should.
4. Waiters who know what's in the sauce. You don't ask much from the serving staff. You want them to notice you when you arrive, bring you cutlery, bread, water and a wine list, and not leave you sitting there unattended, like babies in high-chairs. You hope they will ham up, ever so slightly, their delight that you've chosen to eat there. You hope they'll know what each dish consists of, what's in the sauce, whether the chef uses chicken or vegetable stock, whether the bread contains nuts, and that they can explain what sous-vide or mirepoix (or any other unfamiliar words on the menu) mean. At the end of your meal, you'd like them to clear everything away without remarking on your failure to eat more than half the main course ("Are you sick or something?") and to get on with enthusing about the puddings.
5. Comprehensive menus. Unless you'rein a specialist Hungarian/Eritrean/ Jamaican/ Japanese-Brazilian/ British regional or fish-only establishment, a restaurant should offer – either among the starters or the mains – some concoctions of beef, lamb, pork, duck, chicken, venison, game birds, on-bone fish, filleted fish, crab or lobster, plus a vegetarian dish. Anything less than that shows they're not really trying. And they should have a soup, and a cheese board, by which they would be happy to have their reputation judged.
6. The way mamma used to make it. One vital sign of a good restaurant is its commitment to the home-made: in-house pasta and bread, made-on-the-premises minestrone, pies, puddings, sauces and tarts. In a world where so many stocks, garnishes and french fries come to the table ready-made or second-hand, all praise to the authentic, honest-to-God authenticity of pasta made on the premises. When you're offered a bread basket whose contents – bacon focaccia, black-olive-studded rolls and slabs of oniony bap – have come straight from the bread oven, you know you're in good hands.
7. Chateaux cheapo. Every wine list will have its own character, its show-off 1982 clarets and New World exotica. The quality sommelier shows his skill by his choices at the lower end of the scale. Finding a £15-£6 house white wine that doesn't strip the enamel from your teeth is a marvellous thing. So is finding a range of four or five whites and reds for under £20. Best of all, though, is finding a place (eg the London sister restaurants Arbutus and Wild Honey) where every single wine on the list is available by the glass or carafe.
8. Finding a big steak on the menu. Sometimes you're just too starving, too hungover, too irritable or too macho to feel like weighing up the delights of the Confit of Duck with Cherries or the Sea Bass with Braised Fennel. You body cries: "Gimme a 10-ounce rib-eye with fries right now!" Some restaurants have realised this simple fact about the urgent requirements of hypoglycaemic men (and women) and adjusted their menus accordingly. They deserve our warm gratitude.
9. The Joy of Puddings. One of the delights of becoming a restaurant critic is the discovery – after years of waving away the dessert menu and ordering coffee – of how much imagination goes into modern British puddings. Once you've tried a few – chocolate fondant, apple crème brulée, raspberry panna cotta, Eton mess, tarte tatin, rhubarb fool, pear crumble with custard, and especially the sherry trifle in the Soho Townhouse – you realise they're the truest indicators of a chef's creativity.
10. Canning the service charge. After long discussions about the ins and outs of tipping, and The Independent's campaign for the fair treatment of serving-staff, have we all grown up now? Here's the deal. A good, responsible restaurant does not impose a service charge, either mandatory or "optional". It leaves it to the patron to reward their waiter/waitress with a suitable gratuity. Or not, of course, if they didn't try very hard.
10 Things That Make a Bad Restaurant
1. Domine, non sum dignus. Entering some restaurants, both in central London or the depths of the Home Counties, you could be forgiven for asking: are we here to eat or to pray? Too much virginal white or hotel-ballroom gilt, too much chandelier and recessed-lighting action, too much ostentatious good taste and Hyacinth Bucket gentility, too many vestal candles and swooshy curtains – they dull the appetite. You'll spend your time thinking: "How much is this going to cost?"
2. That funny smell. You'd think restaurateurs understood the closeness of taste to smell, and the importance of maintaining a blend of kitchen aromas – simmering stock, fresh herbs, garlic, roasting meat – that will drive clients wild with anticipation. So why do some make the ghastly blunder of filling the room with too-strong flavours? Just as I was lifting the first forkful of Landais chicken to my lips in Terroirs (The Independent Magazine's New Restaurant of the Year 2009,) the baked Vacherin arrived at the next table and polluted the surrounding air like a gigantic fart. It was a shocking misjudgement. Either that, or they couldn't afford extractor fans.
3. Waiters who want to know your opinion. Few things can screw up an otherwise agreeable meal as much as a waiter or waitress addicted to the tired clichés of service: flapping a napkin at your crotch, pushing your chair under you, refilling your wine glass every three minutes, taking your bottle off to some distant ice-bucket as if you can't be trusted to help yourself, asking "Can I get some water for your table?" as if the table were dying of thirst. Most heinous of all is the waiter who wants to know what you think about everything, as if he's running a gastronomic chat show. Most egregious example? The chap who said: "The vegetables will arrive shortly. And I'll be back in a few minutes for your comments." "Please don't," is, the only possible reply.
4. Pretentious menus. You know the kind of thing. "Wild woodland mushrooms." "Hand-dived scallops." "Hedgerow-foraged greens." Anything to suggest that the restaurateur has gone somewhere fancier than Sainsbury's to "source" his ingredients. How does one "hand-dive" a scallop anyway? And don't you hate "Pan-fried bream" (as opposed to "electric-toaster-charred bream"?) And have you ever blinked at "wilted greens" and "red wine-glazed salsify"? (Will we also be offered "disappointed carrots" and "lager-bewildered lobster"?) One can legitimately raise an eyebrow about the snooty place-dropping of "Inverawe Smoked Salmon," "Salt Marsh Lamb" and "Roast Banham Chicken." (Why would a Cornish restaurant gets its smoked salmon from Scotland?) But at least restaurants have stopped using sneaky Franglais terminology. Once, in Clapham, I saw a menu that featured Canard au Neuchatel brun. It translates as "Duck cooked in Newcastle Brown Ale".
5. Go home, foam. I've come to dread the current epidemic of ginger "froth", oyster "spume", asparagus "frizz" and caper "foam" that hovers like ectoplasm over your plate. Turning asparagus from solid to liquid to make a soup is fine; turning it into a kind of aerosol spray on the tongue is to deny the concept of food as nourishment. The only time I want to see the word "cappuccino" on a menu is in relation to roasted coffee beans.
6. Dishes that aren't what they say they are. An alarming innovation in chef circles is to offer an old-favourite dish, but to serve it so comprehensively deconstructed that it bears no relation to what you'd hoped for. Recently I ordered a crème caramel that came (the menu promised) with a poached apple, hazelnut sponge and blackberry sorbet. Lovely – but when it came, the sponge was the main event, and the crème caramel demoted to also-ran status as a smear of sauce. An example of chefs thinking they know, better than their customers, what their customers want.
7. Crowding the island. Outstanding chefs can combine five or six things on a plate in a way that makes sense: their flavours or textures, even their colours, miraculously intertwine. Too many aspirant chefs simply chuck ingredients together: three treatments of lamb, four tiny vegetables, sweetbreads, tongue, truffle jelly, fruit sauce – much of it is exquisite, but it makes no sense when everything's crowded together. The analogy I use is of a dozen strangers on a traffic island: they don't combine in any meaningful way, and they have nothing to say to each other.
8. Special effects. Sorry to be a spoilsport, but I've never found a "concept restaurant" that was any good for actually eating in. Dining in total darkness at Dans le Noir? Terrible. Dining while lying down at the Supperclub in Notting Hill? No thanks. Menus that are "made for sharing"? Humbug. Those places where the management brightly explains: "It's sort of tapas with a twist – most people order about ten dishes each..."? Bah.
9. The cleaning roster. It's a personal gripe, but I can't stand to have my meal interrupted by a waiter cleaning the recently vacated table next door by spraying it with aerosol Fairy Liquid. If I'd wanted to have flying droplets of detergent spray in my gigot d'agneau, I'd have rung Heston Blumenthal.
10. Bringing on the chef. Why do they do it? I love eating out but I can't stand the moment when the maître d' appears at the coffee stage, flourishing, like a portly rabbit from a hat, the aproned sociopath who has been slaving at a hob on your behalf for the last two hours. You're expected to fawn, to ask clever questions ("Did I detect shallots in the jus?") and chat man-to-man. It's ghastly. Does the orchestra conductor come down for an exhausted little chat with the front row of punters after the symphony's over? Well then.Reuse content