Terry Durack : Our restaurants are great, but who benfits?

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Indy Lifestyle Online

Zagat tells us what we already know. That we're paying too much for food, but the food we're paying too much for is better than it used to be. That London, with New York and perhaps Sydney, is one of the world's three most exciting dining cities. That The Ivy is great fun; that Gordon cooks pretty decent food; that our top food is still French; and that Indian, Italian and Japanese make for a few interesting options.

Yes, it's more interesting than Paris, because Paris is filled with French chefs cooking French food in French restaurants. So was London, until British dining transformed itself in the past 10 years as a new generation of ambitious young chefs and entrepreneurial restaurateurs bucked the status quo.

No longer do you have to be French to gain industry accolades or full reservations books. Now you can be American, Japanese, Italian, Scottish, Australian ­ or even English.

But it's worth asking who actually gets to benefit from all this lip-smacking hedonism. Let's not forget that London is the most expensive place in which to dine in all of Europe, and that a three-course dinner for two with wine at Gordon Ramsay isn't going to leave much change from £250.

The Ivy and Nobu may be the two most popular restaurants in London, but you and I can't get into one, and can't afford to eat at the other. Elitism isn't a bad thing in itself, but the gap between the great and the bloody awful is growing. And it's not being filled by good, decent, modest, neighbourhood restaurants, as it should be, but by franchised cafés and sandwich bars.

While much has been made of the Michelin stars awarded to our top-end Indian restaurants, and the inroads being made by what is coyly called "ethnic cuisine", ours will be a classically based, French-driven dining scene for a while yet. Eight of the 10 restaurants ranked highest for food by Zagat are French-based.

Our lack of knowledge and appreciation of some of the world's greatest cuisines is depressing ­ no wonder every Indian restaurant does chicken tikka masala and every Chinese does lemon chicken. Too many critics, too, find themselves embarrassingly out of their depth when they wade too far away from their poulet and Pouilly Fuisse, resulting in uninformed and misguided opinions.

Then there's the matter of service. Professional service ­ what you get when people know their jobs ­ is now worthy of remark, rather than something we can consistently take for granted. Too many bowls of soup come with thumbs stuck in them like poolside bathers; and too many waiters, when asked, have no idea what's in the soup ­ apart from their thumbs.

All of this doesn't mean our restaurants aren't good, because they are ­ but that should never stop us from wanting them to be better.

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