While skilled chefs such as Anthony Worrall Thompson and Tom Aikens are high-profile casualties of the recession, another kind of cuisine is flourishing – cheap fast food. Offers that customers can download from the internet have enabled chains such as Pizza Hut, Strada and PizzaExpress to thrive. KFC plan to open 250 new restaurants employing 9,000 people. Subway is creating 7,000 new jobs in 600 outlets in the UK and Ireland.
None of these new career opportunities involve a high level of cooking skill or the ability to come up with what I would call real food. Is this what our much-hyped British dining renaissance has come down to? The crisis facing the industry is huge – 45 per cent of the businesses that failed in the hospitality sector at the end of last year were restaurants, a rise of 32 per cent on the previous 12 months. This week, dozens more will be facing bankruptcy. But I won't mourn them.
I want to support small businesses, especially local ones, and I enjoy eating out. But sadly, the people running many restaurants in the UK have lost the plot. The cult of the celebrity chef has had a disastrous impact, and chefs like Worrall Thompson, Aikens, Jean- Christophe Novelli and Paul Heathcote are more concerned with their websites, PR and their "brand" than with the business of giving their customers good food in a recession.
The same cult of personality applies to food critics, who continue to extol the virtues of meals at £40 to £50 a head. What planet are they on? The days of the £17 lamb shank are over. What we need are places that can cook and serve competently, which cost between £12 and £25 a head. Many restaurants have forgotten basic principles, the most important of which is that the customer doesn't have to be there – putting up with bad lighting, tables too close together, awful background music, incomprehensible menus, and patronising (or uninterested) staff.
In a recession we spend money and eat out (rather than get a takeaway) because we are tired, we want to relax with our partners, chat with friends, or celebrate a special occasion. We want something better cooked than we'd manage at home in a convivial atmosphere. Is that too much too ask?
I regard eating out at a place I haven't patronised previously as a dangerous gamble. Can you tell me any other way of spending money (other than betting on horses) where you hand over such large sums of cash for so little return? The places with a loyal clientele who will survive the recession have a couple of things right. The menu delivers what it says it's going to do, no nasty surprises, no hidden extras. The atmosphere is friendly, you are made to feel special by the staff, welcomed on arrival. Why do cab drivers love going to the Ivy for Sunday lunch? All of the above. My list of places that deliver that experience is very short: in London, St John; Moro; the Wolseley, and local places in Yorkshire and Kent, both of which are called the Sportsman's Arms. Yes, some may cost more than £20 a head but they have never let me down.
I can cook reasonably well, but most chefs have no idea what their food tastes like. They cook by numbers and never eat the completed dish – if they did, they would surely realise that it's pretentious garbage. Over the last four weeks I've experienced a typical run of substandard meals. At Perk Up in Ripon I was served a risotto where the cooked rice had a soggy boiled vegetable stirred into it and was garnished with chewy wild mushrooms. The waitress seemed perplexed that I found it unacceptable.
The Olive Press in Preston is one of a chain owned by Paul Heathcote. At lunch (two courses £12.50) in the Grill my potato and fennel soup consisted of cream, spuds and three slices of raw fennel – it was disgusting. The risotto was boiled squash mixed with rice, no cheese. My partner ate confit of duck with spaghetti, which tasted like fried-up leftovers. The waiter spent most of his time sitting in reception even though we were the only customers. When I asked for bread he brought our table of three just two slices! A small dish of repulsively soggy courgette fritters were an extra £3.
Reading Mr Heathcote's sophisticated website, on which he talks of "an experience everyone will enjoy", made me feel slightly nauseous: does he ever visit his empire as a paying customer? The waiter had no idea of service and the chef was lamentable. Finally, the table cloth was completely screwed up and needed an iron.
At the Royal Baths in Harrogate millions have been spent restoring the old Palm Court, and a Chinese restaurant has opened in this magnificent space. The lighting was hideously bright, and rock ballads blared out of the sound system – I thought I'd entered the Wetherspoon's next door by mistake. The food reached the standard of a basic takeaway and the bill arrived written in Chinese with no explanation. A dinner for four with one bottle of wine and three beers came to an astonishing £130. On the Tripadvisor website there are plenty of complaints about the pricing, one couple being charged £16 for two gin and tonics! We left as the couple on the next table were refusing to pay the service charge. What a waste of an historic setting.
Near my London home in Clerkenwell, there are restaurants of a high standard such as Moro and St John. I supported a friendly newcomer, The Ambassador, until the other week, when I was served completely undercooked haricot beans. The manager explained they had new chefs, but why should the customer have to experience their learning curve? Why didn't they just stick to what they always did well before, onglet steak and chips for a little over a tenner?
The answer is that chefs have giant egos. They think they are coming up with some culinary breakthrough no one has thought of before. In a recession, that's the last thing we need. We want unpretentious neighbourhood restaurants with people in the kitchen who can cook. Is that too much to ask?
Do you agree with Janet Street-Porter on the state of British restaurants? Tell us your experiences in the comment form below
Net's not clicked yet with MPs
MPs are falling over themselves to show just how new media-savvy they are, but a study by the Hansard Society concludes far too much of their online communication is one-way, with them talking at us, rather than listening. Even John Prescott has a social networking site, where he can claim more than 2,000 friends – that's probably more mates in cyberspace than the real world.
Barack Obama's clever use of the internet gave him a real insight into voters' attitudes and worries during his election campaign, but there's not much of a chance that will happen here unless MPs realise the web is a two-way street. It's admirable that 11 per cent of them have a blog and 83 per cent a website, but I'd be more impressed if they were inter-active. As it is, nearly half the MPs questioned thought they would need more office staff to use digital media, which just shows they have no idea how to harness it properly.
It's a right Bono takeover of the BBC
I turned the radio off promptly at 7.15 last night to avoid Radio 4's edition of Front Row – normally an excellent review of the arts – entirely devoted to U2. Earlier in the day, on the Today programme, Bono had been forced to justify his friendship with George Bush. Two big plugs on the same channel, plus more due later last night, with The Culture Show on BBC2 for anyone who hadn't realised that the BBC was now the official broadcaster for Bono and his mates. Still to come – more puffs on Jo Whiley on Radio 1 this Friday, Chris Evans later that day on Radio 2, and finally Jonathan Ross on BBC1 that evening. Shocking isn't the word for this plug-fest. Craven is better.Reuse content