FOOD AND DRINK / In which we are catered into submission

Accidents happen in life, but too many in succession suggests that something else is at work. I have had bad meals; there are houses where I know I am going to have a bad meal; there are places where I don't expect to eat well; but I have seldom had a succession of bad meals in different places, as I did last weekend.

I went to give a lecture to a group of philosophers gathered for their annual meeting in a fine old house in Niagara on the Lake, a pretty spot, lush and green, on the Canadian shore of Lake Ontario. This is the home of the Shaw Theatre (we caught another near-impossibiity there, a badly-

staged performance of Hecht and McArthur's wonderfully-crafted The Front Page), and is visited by no fewer than three million tourists a year - about a quarter of the number who gawk at Niagara Falls, some 20 miles away.

Now, I think it a truism to say that places where tourist traffic is particularly intense (say, the French Channel coast, Monaco, Lourdes or Heathrow) are not likely to attract very good restaurants. Good restaurants rely on steady trade, on those who eat there regularly, not on those who come there accidentally. Nonetheless, in every such place, there is usually an establishment which sets out to distinguish itself by being a great deal more expensive than the other eateries, considerably more pretentious, more crowded (by snobs escaping the hordes), and often much worse.

These restaurants operate under a gastronomic rule of thumb. A retired maitre d' with all his tax- free tips, a chef weary of working in the big city, a Hong Kong entrepreneur seeking to stash his capital somewhere his prospective Chinese overlords can't get at it, an investor idling by on a summer day, will look upon a place with a lot of indifferent restaurants and say, 'What this place needs is a good restaurant.' Encouraged by the locals, such a place will come into being: with high ideals and a devoted chef. And it will work - for a few months a year.

Then it will become like the Garden Gate. This is a cavernous, white-walled Italian restaurant which looks at first glance pretty impeccable. The tablecloths and napkins are clean and starched, the waiters cheerful, the customers numerous. It is also almost as noisy as a rush- hour crowd tramping down one of the long tunnels of the London Underground. But then, lots of restaurants these days are acoustically challenged. The under-forties are deaf from their Walkmen; people no longer converse, they shout. I have given up persuading restaurateurs to take that into account. Bare walls and hard floors are chic; so are big, heavy plates and fat glasses that clatter. Customers apparently like to cluster in their pens like sheep and rub each other's wool, and accountants like to see as many tables as possible per square metre.

That, I wasn't bothered about. I can lapse into silence, eat and stick my nose in my wine. But here there was an uneasy feeling. It started when we consulted the menu - of which the best that could be said was that it was miscellaneous. A bad sign. The longer, the more 'international' the menu, the more haphazard the cooking. We chose Italian. After all, the principal in this establishment was a fat, grey-haired Italian, looking a bit like Peter Ustinov doing an imitation of an Italian, and singing gaily as he served. (The idea that food-vending and training as a tenor go together is, alas, prevalent among a certain class of Italian).

Well, the pasta tasted only of flour, second-hand butter, long- chopped spinach and sage long from its roots. When our host's charming wife was served a dish that looked remarkably like ours (we had ordered pork loin in a mushroom sauce), she (who had ordered veal) pointed out the close resemblance. The waiter looked doubtfully at the three plates. 'No, no,' he said, shaking his head vigorously, 'you have veal.' The question was, how could one tell?

It went on from there. A caterer had been brought in for this select conference. The salads tasted of formaldehyde, washing- up liquid and industrial vinegar; the beef had been used as a croquet ball and then cooked into black, sullen, sodden submission. Our first-class tickets (US Air, BA's American feeder) offered cheese snacks in plastic bags. And when, soaked from the rain belting down and the mist pelting up from the Falls, we sought gastronomic comfort at the Sheraton (spectacular view, though invisible), we found it farinaceous, flavourless and glum.

The explanation of all this is simple: people who cater at conferences despise their customers as much as restaurants that cater to tourists. They consider serving a meal is akin to providing a public convenience: in the one you may spend a penny, in the other many pounds, but utility is all you're offered. These places which people visit en masse have no populations of their own. Help is imported, or young. The eaters are in and out in an hour; their minds are on gawk-and-shop. How does a cook satisfy a troop of Japanese, Germans or Swedes?

I object to none of it (says he who has been dispirited in Blackpool and Margate too); only to my operatic Italian and his claim to being different and better - which he may well have been, once, during the week he opened.

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Recruitment Genius: Graphic Designer - Product Development

    £26000 - £29000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Product Development departm...

    Recruitment Genius: Assistant Manager - Visitor Fundraising

    £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Visitor Fundraising Team is responsi...

    Recruitment Genius: Developer

    £30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

    Recruitment Genius: Estates Contracts & Leases Manager

    £30000 - £34000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Estates Team of this group ...

    Day In a Page

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

    Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
    House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

    The honours that shame Britain

    Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
    When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

    'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

    Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
    International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

    International Tap Festival comes to the UK

    Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
    Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

    'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

    Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
    Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

    BBC heads to the Californian coast

    The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
    Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

    Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

    Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
    Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

    Car hacking scandal

    Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
    10 best placemats

    Take your seat: 10 best placemats

    Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
    Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
    Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

    Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

    Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
    Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

    Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

    The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
    Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

    Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

    His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

    Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future