January 24, 2014 6:44 pm

Portion control

‘It takes a certifiable fop to drop £50 on a tiny cube of salmon poached to barely legal temperatures in a plastic bag’
Illustration by Richard Allen of a diner looking at her food through a microscope©Richard Allen

Some friends of mine recently came back from a trip to the US. They are “healthy eaters”, not averse to a proper-sized dinner, but having been invited out to restaurants for most of the nights of their stay, they had returned with a sort of culinary PTSD. The portions, they reported, were vast, out of control, and yet they felt guilty about leaving things and found themselves skipping meals where they could to compensate.

If many Americans are OK with the idea of generous food provision, and possibly with the attendant waste, Brits appear conditioned from birth to “finish everything on the plate” and not to have “eyes bigger than their bellies”.

People in the food business will tell you that they bet on differences in portion expectations even in the UK. Provincial audiences show laudable price sensitivity, seeing large portions as worth the money. Metropolitan ones? Well, it takes a committed foodist or a certifiable fop to drop £50 on a three-centimetre cube of salmon poached to barely legal temperatures in a plastic bag and served on a smear of something.

But it is “business critical” that they get this right. It’s an exciting time. New restaurants of all types are springing up, customers of all demographic groups are eating out. There’s a surge in informal, hospitable eating places but the way restaurant-goers eat is changing radically too.

In previous generations, a weekday lunch would have comprised three courses. Wine would have been ordered. The lunchers would have quite possibly rolled back to the office at 3pm, a little impaired, and had a pleasant snooze over the blotter. These days we are expected to grab the meal, and restaurants have evolved to respond with wines by the glass and sharing plates.

Scroll back a couple of decades to a meal I had in a restaurant in Sydney. A large man at the head of his table called the manager over and began what he clearly thought was an amusing rant. “I’m not paying this much for a plate of pasta,” he roared, pointing out of the window to a small deli opposite. “I can buy it for a dollar a bag, right over there.” The manager sat down and, in a calm voice, ticked off a five-minute-long list of the ways the customer was costing him money, from ground rent to dishwasher fluid. It was sheer genius. This diatribe, delivered with humour, has stuck with me as one of the most useful lessons I’ve heard in restaurant economics. Best of all was the punchline: “I’ll give you the pasta for a dollar, mate . . . but I’ll have to charge you 30 for sitting there.”

This is why portion size is an issue. It is not rare for three diners to walk into a London restaurant and say, “Is it OK if we just have a couple of starters and a half-carafe of the house red?” Sure they can . . . and if the business model is extremely nimble, the restaurant will at best make nothing. At worst they’ll be paying for the diners to eat.

Spend half an hour standing next to the pot-washer at the height of a busy service and, if food is being scraped into the bin, your heart will ache at the criminal waste. If the plates are already clear, you will lacerate yourself with worry about how many customers are leaving unsatisfied.

And then you start wondering if the Americans haven’t got it, if not exactly “right”, then at least squared away to everyone’s satisfaction. Nobody goes home hungry or feeling they haven’t had their money’s worth. Diners can leave food on their plate if they want to – they have paid for it, after all – and they can ask for a doggy bag if they want it. Everybody is happy – except maybe any visiting Brits.

Tim Hayward is an FT Weekend contributing writer; tim.hayward@ft.com

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