Cut the fuss, add to the pleasure

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First, the bad news. There is no doubt that menu prices in restaurants across the world are likely to rise quite significantly and, most probably, quite soon. Even those restaurateurs and chefs with harmonious working relationships with farmers and growers will be unable to escape the steep rises in a number of basic foodstuffs.

Wheat and maize prices have risen dramatically as farmers switch to growing these crops for ethanol, a move that has already had an effect on the price of bread in the UK, tortillas in Mexico and pasta in Italy. As the staple price of animal feed increases, so too will the cost of lamb, chicken and beef, while our continued failure to safeguard the bounty of the sea is only likely to lead to higher prices for the best wild fish.

There is no escape for vegetarians as vegetable prices have increased significantly in Britain over the summer. One restaurateur quipped that he never thought he would ever have to pay so much for a cauliflower as he is doing now.

But the scale of the price rise will depend not just on how restaurateurs respond to this challenge but also how quickly they are prepared to jettison some of their practices, that have become costly irrelevances and often detract from the overall enjoyment of the meal.

The most encouraging news for those who eat out is that, over the past couple of years, a growing number of restaurateurs has emerged with laudably high standards and a commitment to volume over high margins – even if, infuriatingly for many, some choose to do this via a non-booking policy. Among this group of reasonably priced restaurants in London are Arbutus and its sibling restaurant, Wild Honey; Canteen; Great Queen Street; Tapas Brindisa; Magdalen; Barrafina in Soho, the lively sibling to Fino, and Wahaca.

More restaurants will follow in their wake but keeping that reasonable price level up and their long-term success will depend on two very different factors. The first is the reduction and, I hope, the eventual disappearance of the premiums restaurateurs are being asked to pay as lump sums when they rent a site over and above increasingly high rentals. These premiums, which can be as high as £250,000, are the consequence of greed on one side and excessive optimism on the other and can only be recouped through higher prices overall. Anthony Demetre and Will Smith reluctantly paid a premium of £200,000, a third of the overall cost of opening Arbutus, for what was deemed as “goodwill” – on a previous restaurant from which Smith reckons he has seen no more than 10 former customers.

Many restaurants have now introduced timed bookings to the indignation of numerous customers but this is the only significant practical alternative to raising prices. The time any table is occupied is a crucial factor in a restaurant’s profitability. When Demetre and Smith took over Wild Honey in Mayfair, they calculated that they needed to serve 150 customers a day to generate a sensible return. Lunch will never account for more than 50 to 60 covers maximum, so the rest has to come between 6.30pm and 10pm. And this practice is no longer restricted to London and New York – we recently managed to get a table at Baratin in Paris for 8pm but only if we were out by 10pm.

Before a whole host of other restaurateurs nonchalantly raise their prices in the expectation that the strong demand for their tables will simply continue, I would hope that they would look more closely at what they are offering and abandon several practices that have been introduced to impress rather than to deliver value.

First, I would propose the elimination of the charger plate, the ridiculous and invariably expensive empty plate that is at every place setting when the customer sits down and which is then whisked away once the table is occupied (there are also smaller ones set in front of those who do not order a particular course).

I once asked a three-star Michelin chef to try to justify these but his explanation – that they are there so that the customer has something to look at rather than an empty table setting – has never convinced me. Expensive, fragile and presumably in constant need of washing, they should be abandoned.

I also think that the array of amuse-bouches, breads and petits fours that an ambitious restaurant now makes an integral part of the meal has got completely out of hand.

The most constant complaint I hear from chefs is that they cannot find enough talented and committed young chefs for their kitchens yet too many of these chefs still put far too much emphasis on these often intricate and invariably time-consuming titbits. Is there anything that much better than a bowl of good olives to nibble on while studying the menu? Is the drawn-out recital of the six different, painstakingly made breads adding anything to the table’s ultimate enjoyment? And what has got into the heads of far too many chefs who seem to believe that, after a three-course meal, we still need a choice of five different petits fours? I have even had postprandial sweetmeats served in two flights, fruit-based followed by chocolate. A delicious, single petit four would be quite enough.

Finally, with wages now accounting for 30 per cent of a restaurant’s running costs, it is time to reassess the waiter’s role. I know that I am not alone in thinking that there really is no good reason why a waiter has to spend so much time fussing with the napkins, either draping them over someone’s lap or refolding them every time a customer gets up from the table. And in terms of extra efficiency, as well as getting rid of an extremely annoying practice, it is time to call a halt to the waiter’s recitation of every single ingredient in a dish. A quick calculation for a 50-seat restaurant, where each description takes 45 seconds, shows that almost two hours are spent on something that does not add any extra benefit or pleasure for the customer – and often interrupts an interesting conversation.

All this could lead to some good news. With higher costs and a slightly less rosy economic outlook, restaurateurs will have to work harder to make their menus and wine lists more appealing and their service more attentive to maintain their essential profitability.

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