March 14, 2014 5:48 pm

Courses for courses

‘Do not assume that your waiter or waitress is a mind reader’
The interiors of Marchants Tavern©Patricia Niven

An evening at a restaurant, like a night at the cinema, is almost always followed by a debate at home. And as I know from experience, restaurants can divide opinion just as much as any movie, exhibition or play.

But while cultural institutions do a lot to explain their work and enrich people’s experience of it, no such dialogue exists in the restaurant world. Chefs and restaurateurs may tweet about what they are up to or the latest ingredient in season but they rarely, if ever, try to interpret what they do specifically for their customers’ benefit.

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Nicholas Lander

As I prepared for a talk on this subject at the recent Shanghai International Literary Festival, I took the opportunity to ask several restaurateurs one simple question: what advice would they give to people that would help them get the most out of a restaurant?

My first stop was Paris, where Enrico Bernardo, chef turned sommelier, is now restaurateur at Il Vino and Goust. “It’s very important,” he said, “that the customer chooses the most appropriate restaurant for the occasion. If it’s a business lunch, pick somewhere where the food is light and not too intrusive. Today, the guest has so much power.”

According to Juan Calatayud, who specialises in restaurant openings and is currently at The Magazine in Kensington Gardens (where I have also consulted), customers need to relax more. “Most restaurateurs have put a lot of thought into their restaurants, and guests need to embrace this novelty rather than question it. The more customers go with the flow, the more they will enjoy the whole experience.”

My next stop was via the stairs at the back of Le Caprice restaurant past two floors of kitchen to the basement office of Jesus Adorno, its director.

Bolivian-born Adorno has been the popular face of this restaurant for 32 years, during which time he has probably dealt with more demanding customers than anyone else, most of whom want to sit at what each describes as “my favourite table”.

Baked vegetable, Alsace bacon and poached hen’s egg©Patricia Niven

Baked vegetable, Alsace bacon and poached hen’s egg

“We do our best but sometimes it’s impossible and we cannot oblige, so my advice is that if one particular table does become a customer’s favourite then he or she, when they are next in the restaurant, should look at the tables on either side. They are probably just as appealing and if, as a restaurateur, I have the opportunity to allocate one of three tables to a regular customer rather than just one, then I know they will never be disappointed.”

From the sidewalks of St James’s, I headed east to Shoreditch, where restaurateurs have to cope with a constant stream of young, enthusiastic diners. My stop was at the recently opened Merchants Tavern to talk to their highly respected restaurant manager, Tania Marie Davey. Her advice reflected the restaurant’s current popularity.

“The bottleneck in any restaurant is the number of orders the kitchen can cope with at any one time, so that is why we try to space out the reservations. Customers can really enhance their experience by arriving on time or, if they are running late, by letting us know when they will be here. And, as someone who enjoys eating out as much as looking after customers, if you really want to experience what a new restaurant has to offer, then avoid Friday and Saturday nights.”

Davey’s final suggestion was to tell your waiter of any allergies. This relates to what has become my standard piece of advice: do not assume that your waiter or waitress is a mind reader. If they were, they would not be waiting on tables but playing poker in a Macau casino making their personal fortunes. So, from the outset, tell your waiter what you want, if a special occasion is being celebrated and, most important, if there is a time pressure on your meal.

After I mentioned this to two friends who eat out on business far more than any restaurant correspondent, they swiftly countered with what, in their opinion, most restaurateurs could do better. Both focused on the beginning of the meal.

One, who does a lot of business over lunch, says that, invariably, one guest arrives before the other and not all waiting teams are attentive enough to that customer. The second, who entertains principally over dinner, believes most could improve the speed with which they serve the first drink. “A menu always reads more appealingly with an aperitif in your hand,” he noted.

nicholas.lander@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/lander

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FT COMPETITION

FT Weekend Magazine is celebrating Nicholas Lander’s 25th anniversary at the Financial Times with a reader competition.

Describe your most memorable meal in 25 words or fewer. The winning entry, judged by Nicholas Lander, will be published here and win dinner for two at a top London restaurant. Email us at ftweekendmagazine@ft.com by April 19.

Full Terms and Conditions

The FT competition (“FT Competition”)

1. By entering into the FT Competition, Participants agree to these terms and conditions and acknowledge that failure to comply with them may result in disqualification. The FT Competition shall be void where prohibited by local law. All national and local laws and regulations shall apply. These terms and conditions include all instructions of how to take part in the FT Competition.

2. The FT Competition is open to participants in the UK only. Participants must be over 18 years of age. Employees and immediate family members of employees of The Financial Times Limited (“FT”) and The Quality Chop House, and their associated companies, professional advisers, advertising and promotional agencies are not eligible to take part in the FT Competition.

3. To enter the FT Competition, simply describe your most memorable meal in 25 words or fewer and email to ftweekendmagazine@ft.com. Entry period is from March 15 to midnight GMT on April 19 2014. Only one entry per person is permitted. Multiple or incomplete entries will be deemed to be invalid.

4. The winning prize (“Prize”) consists of dinner for two people at the Quality Chop House, 92-94 Farringdon Rd, London EC1R 3EA.

5. Travel is not included.

6. The winner will be judged by Nicholas Lander from all eligible entries. The winner will be chosen no later than April 25th 2014.

7. FT shall notify the selected winner by April 28 2014 and provide details of how to claim the Prize. If the Prize is declined or unclaimed by the winner, or if the winner cannot be contacted from the details supplied within 3 business days of notification, a replacement winner may be chosen at the FT’s discretion and will be notified by the FT. The original entry that was chosen as the winner will then be forfeited.

8. The name and county of the winner will be available from April 28 2014 upon receipt by the Financial Times of a self-addressed envelope at the following address: The Financial Times, Number One, Southwark Bridge, London, SE1 9HL.

9. The result of the competition is final and no correspondence will be entered into. The Prize is non-transferable, non-refundable and has no cash value if not used.

10. The winner may be required to complete and return an eligibility form stating their age and residency details.

11. By entering the FT Competition, the winner agrees to take part in any publicity relating to the FT Competition by FT or Quality Chop House if the winner is invited to do so without further compensation.

12. FT reserves the right to cancel or amend these Terms and Conditions or change the Prize (to one of equivalent value) as required by the circumstances. There is no cash alternative.

13. FT cannot accept responsibility for or liability arising from Participants taking part in the FT Competition or for taking up the Prize. FT gives no warranty or guarantee in relation to the Prize and accepts no responsibility or liability for the Prize being amended by FT. To the fullest extent permissible by law, FT excludes liability for all loss, damage or claim arising as a result of the Participant’s entry into the FT Competition or use of the Prize.

14. These terms and conditions shall be governed by and construed in accordance with English law. Disputes arising in connection with this FT Competition shall be subject to the exclusive jurisdiction of the English courts.

15. The Promoter is The Financial Times Ltd, Number One Southwark Bridge, London, SE1 9HL.

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