Miami nice: the Driftwood is a restaurant for the person you want to be
Miami nice: the Driftwood is a restaurant for the person you want to be

You are not just what you eat but where you eat: What is Betty's tea room in Harrogate doing if not selling you a lifestyle?

Samuel Muston
Tuesday 23 February 2016 17:50
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It was in the second-from-left blue-and-white striped booth in the Driftwood Room at the Nautilus hotel in Miami, while drinking a frozen beverage going by the name of “Mexican Mule”, that I saw success in the international restaurant business. His name was Tom.

Tom had a fulsome beard, a glottal-stopped accent and a polo shirt two shades darker than the sky, and he knew his business. And that business was, along with a cadre of other similarly attired handsome people, to serve – and not just that, but to form a roving embassy for the restaurant and the hotel in which it sits, on the cool bit of Miami Beach.

Tom is at one with the restaurant's menu – with its big pink-red côte de boeuf and roasted white onion and rocambole garlic, its zingy lemonfish crudo, and its basil tops on the Fioretta Burrata Caprese with mustard seeds and balsamic sherry side. And he knows just what wine will go with it all, too.

When you are away from home, and lost between time zones, the only clock that makes any sense is the one in your stomach. Breakfast, lunch, dinner – they are staging points in a way that they can never be in a day-to-day crowded with commutes and lunch breaks and long-arranged spin classes. And so you become alive to things you don't usually notice – you hear the mood music.

The Driftwood is so pleasant to be in, so successful at its game, because it is more than just a place you come and order a fried-chicken sandwich at lunchtime: it is a total experience. It is an aspirational lifestyle camp, complete with lithe customers, aquamarine pool and palm trees that sway just so in the wind. And it is at home with itself; and it is relaxed about what it's doing, and in doing so, it relaxes its customers.

This is the mark of accomplishment in a restaurant, wherever it is. What is Betty's tea room in Harrogate doing if not selling you a lifestyle – the suggestion that it is the quintessence of Englishness, a place of tradition with family luminaries on the wall? Is Pizza Express not a marker of middle classness, just as surely as a Waitrose bag is? Isn't the success of the Polpo Venetian bàcaro chain, in London and now Brighton, nearly as much down to its attractive menu, its hipster staff, and its assumed sense of sophistication as it is to the quality of its fritto misto? What these restaurants sell us is a vision of ourselves – and where we want to be in life. They are the equivalent of the Ford Model T or the Thomas Cook ticket to Spain to previous generations.

You can't simply have, to use a phrase of my grandmother's, “flowers in the window and nothing in the fridge”. Of course you can't. Success requires hours spent sorting that burrata that Tom promises will be “the creamiest in Miami” and delicately cooking that indelicate great hunk of cow on the grill.

The food has to sing but a really good restaurant provides it with a decent microphone and the best acoustics it can.

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