When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life. So said Samuel Johnson – but he never lived to queue for hours at a no-reservations hot spot, only to hoick himself up on to a rickety stool at the end of a communal breakfast bar at bedtime to enjoy a burger served in a dog bowl with a side order of chips in a flower pot. No, if Johnson were alive today, I’d wager his maxim would have been: when a man is tired of London food fads, he is at last a man.
This is not a beef with restaurant cuisine, but with the way it is served. Food-fiddling is rife, and not just in the capital. Everywhere, the Zen perfection of a disc of white porcelain with a lip to stop you splashing gravy on your knees is being elbowed out by what looks like the remnants of a car boot sale. Roof tiles, coal shovels, deep-fat fryer baskets, jam jars, miniature wheelbarrows, boxes of hay, takeaway cartons and a salvage yard’s worth of planks of wood are all, inexplicably, standing in for plates.
Michelin-starred chef Tom Aikens is opening a restaurant in Dubai called Pots, Pans and Boards, the concept (strong word) for which is that “every dish will be cooked – and served – in a pot, pan or on a board”. A new London chippie will serve its spuds “airline style” with condiments pushed down the aisle on trolleys by waiters dressed as cabin crew. Why? To fit in with its name: Come Fry with Me.
Nobody asked for this. My fellow Independent columnist Grace Dent recently shared a picture of herself in a new London restaurant, staring unhappily at a table-top washing line on to which had been pegged five slices of Parma ham. My own tipping point came in Amsterdam, where I had to eat raw tuna with my hands (using the rubber glove provided), suck mushroom soup out of a Kilner jar and, the last straw, eat a chocolate mousse that was nestled inside a baby’s nappy. If anything will put you off gimmicky presentation for life, Pampers will.
These are extremes, but the hunger for originality in a saturated restaurant scene means the quirks keep on coming. Even the most straightforward dining experience can throw a curveball. Why is this bread served in a paper bag? I don’t want to eat from a jar, I was brought up to know better. And if I am extravagant enough to go out for beans on toast, then give me beans on toast – not a mini Le Creuset crockpot of beany salsa with half a muffin balanced on top.
Now the revolution is coming, thanks to We Want Plates, an online sensation which shares on Twitter the most egregious examples of plate-shirking in the UK. It has led to direct action, a wave of disgruntled diners returning boards and baskets to the kitchen and requesting china instead. It is perhaps quintessentially 2015 that there is a social media campaign to bring back something that is not actually extinct, but that is where we are. One can always stay at home.
To those who say it’s just a bit of fun ... well, it’s not, really. The trend for boards and other bits and bobs often puts the onus of fiddling about assembling a meal on to customers when they are supposed to be paying someone to do it for them. It can also be a nifty way of distracting the daft and the hungry from meagre portion sizes. More crucially, these fripperies speak of a lack of confidence in the food – and, insultingly, in the diners. The restaurant that serves up a “talking point” assumes that visitors want to be infantilised, that without a tiny shopping trolley of French fries to chat about, their evening might fall a bit flat.
The pursuit of novelty has its dangers. This week, a wine bar in Lancaster was fined £100,000 after its Nitro-Jägermeister, a cocktail served with liquid nitrogen, led to an 18-year-old girl having her stomach removed. Will this end the dreadful rash of zany cocktails in watering cans, old boots and paper bags? I fear not. Like selfies, funny chalkboards and Keep Calm and Carry On merchandise, it is the dire trend that will not die.
So yes please, we want plates. We also want reservations without restrictions, nice tables, comfortable chairs and flattering lighting, non-quirky menus that keep quiet about how “scrummy” their dishes are, and napkins, rather than the kitchen roll favoured by self-conscious, spit-and-sawdust hipster joints.
We want a dining experience that is so much better than we could manage in our own home that we are willing to pay for it. Sounds radical, but it might just take off.
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