Now it is all profit margins, five-year plans, and tightly focussed target audiences. Take the La Tasca group, a successful chain of 54 tapas bars across the country. A recent issue of Restaurant magazine informs us that the chain's target audience is 20- to 30-year-old women, which is pretty specific. Sure enough, every time I peer into La Tasca, it's full of 25-year-old women drinking Rioja, like Bridget Jones on a Spanish holiday.
What, then, is the target audience for Sartoria, seven-year-old veteran of Sir Terence Conran's ever-growing restaurant empire? Judging by this particular Friday night, it seems to be 50- to 60-year-old American tourists following their hotel concierge's recommendation. This is not exactly a sector on which to base a long future, so clearly the Conran group has recognised the need to make a few changes.
In an effort to revitalise the space, a new general manager (Michael Clark from the Savoy Grill),a new sommelier (Patrick Pugliese), and a new chef (Pasquale Amico from Giorgio Locatelli's Refettorio) have all been recently appointed.
I doubt the room has been altered significantly but then, I can't remember what it used to look like. It's not the sort of room you remember, being pale, bland, wide, open and L-shaped, with an almost Japanese aesthetic in the low-level tables and simple screened walls. The Savile Row theme is restricted to a couple of mannequins, two very funny Jessica Worrall tailor's dummy sculptures of subversively real rather than ideal shapes, and ashtrays in the shape of coiled tape measures.
None of which has anything to do with the theme of the kitchen, which is basically modern-but-not-too-modern Italian. While Amico has swung a few new dishes into the mix of old favourites, his cooking is tailored to a conservative palate.
Antipasto all'Italiana (£7.50) arrives looking like a postcard from summer with its fresh tomato and mozzarella. What the waiter calls "fritti", small crescent-shaped filled pasties with a good yeasty flavour, I call panzerotti. What he calls a "parfait of duck and duck liver" is not duck at all but fresh, headily rich, brown crab meat. The star of the platter, however, is the buffalo mozzarella, all creamy and melting, with a nice contrast between lactic sweetness and tingling acidity.
By comparison, the funghi, patate e asiago (£7) is the kind of gutsy, rustic mountain food that would help you survive winter in the Alto Adige - a baked cake of potatoes, cheese and wild mushrooms that is stick-to-your-ribs rich.
Then it's back to summer with a house-made spaghetti alla chitarra (£8.50) with red mullet and marjoram. It's no beauty, plonked on the plate from the pan, but the combination of light, fresh tomato-y juices, chunks of sea-sweet red mullet and nicely elastic, good-natured pasta does the trick.
Head sommelier Pugliese is not present, and I have to struggle a little with my wine waiter to get him under the £70 mark. Eventually we settle on a supple, spicy Germano Ettore Barbera d'Alba 2003 for £41.
The new chef has swapped the breaded veal fillet for a cutlet, and the costoletta (£21.50) certainly benefits from being cooked on the bone. The thick, dense meat is crumbed and browned in a strangely uniform manner, and served with a simple and sympathetic shaved fennel salad. Wary of Dutch veal, I am reassured to hear that it has come all the way from Colchester.
Similar simplicity shows in a dish of sautéed mussels and clams (£14.50) that is just that - a pile of mussels and clams in their shells sitting in lightly winey juices with some grilled bread for mopping-up purposes. It is at once light, herby, and garlicky, a dish cleverly left to its own devices. I have to like any chef who can cook shellfish as delicately as this. To finish, the delizia di Sorrento (£6.50) is a bright-tasting, lemon-scented pudding.
So why do I find the whole place mildly annoying? There is little that is "simpatico" about Sartoria except for the cooking, and that would have to be even better than it is to transcend the flawed service and lack of food knowledge. The atmosphere is sterile, the piano playing from the bar anachronistic, and the little power struggles between the staff become obvious over the course of the evening. The sommelier loses me completely at the end of the night when he responds to a request for two glasses of wine with the most expensive available, costing a heavy-handed £13.50 each.
Clearly positioned as one of the more corporate, conservative members of the Conran restaurant group, Sartoria is never going to be the hottest place in town. That's fine, but something more may need to be done before it ends up as one of the coldest.
Lunch Mon-Fri; dinner Mon-Sat. Around £140 for two, including wine and service.
12/20 Sartoria, 20 Savile Row, London W1, tel: 020 7534 7000
Scores 1-9 stay home and cook 10-11 needs help 12 OK 13 pleasant enough 14 good 15 very good 16 capable of greatness 17 special, canÕt wait to go back 18 highly honourable 19 unique and memorable 20 as good as it gets
Second helpings: Hot Italian restaurants
Centotre, 103 George Street, Edinburgh, tel: 0131 225 1550
This casual and buzzy bar/café was established in 2004 by Victor and Carina Contini. The place does a roaring trade in crusty pizzas, good pasta, and serious mains such as scottaditto lamb chops with thyme.
Locanda Locatelli, 8 Seymour Street, London W1, tel: 020 7935 9088
Giorgio and Plaxy Locatelli's classy, savvy restaurant is my favourite Italian in Britain. Try the tagliatelle with goat ragu, truffled risotto and brilliant Italian salumi. If you can have a glamorous family restaurant, this is it.
Ramsons, 18 Market Place, Ramsbottom, Lancashire, tel: 01706 825 070
Chris Johnson's cosy, personal restaurant attracts local Italophiles for dishes like wild sorrel and goat cheese risotto and rib eye of Bowland beef with pioppini mushroom sauce.