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I’m not obsessive but I do follow food media with a single-minded, some might say, dysfunctional fervour. Press releases, the ever-present wittering of Twitter and an active buzz of electronic gossip keep me informed of each new venture. Amid an absurd number of openings, relaunches, pop-ups and events in our thriving food culture, just occasionally a wave of vertigo washes over you. How can any human being – restricted as we are to three meals a day – hope to experience them all?
But if you ponder the places you like and the places you’d really like to try, instead of merely “should”, then you realise that the number is really very small. The wealth of destinations out there is a blessing to food lovers but the only way to handle it is by rigorous selection.
Most restaurant-goers use some kind of rating system. I have my own, which asks two simple questions: would I go back? and would I tell my friends to go? It’s a simple formula but it parses out the two most important values a restaurant can have. I will go back to a place that makes me feel loved, that offers “hospitality” in the most basic sense. I will return if I enjoyed the food but also the surroundings, the service and the company.
The second question is more subtle. It singles out those places where one element – usually the food or the venue – is so exceptional that I feel others should experience it. It is rare that I can answer both questions in the affirmative. Places I’d recommend as “important” are rarely comforting and pleasurable in a relaxed way, and the kind of places I find relaxing are often not ones I feel would be adequate for others – either that or I’m unconsciously expressing an aversion to sharing. By now, the list of places I’d like to return to is so substantial that it takes up the clear majority of eating opportunities. I have effectively written a restaurant playlist.
The list isn’t closed. I’m not going to stop trying new places – and some will make it on to the list. Others may, over time, become stale or grow to disappoint but, like the playlist on my iPod, it is a source of comfort, nostalgic joy and security.
Experience tells me that most diners-out have a restaurant playlist, which reassures me. I’m glad I’m not alone in this nerdy behaviour but there is another, more important reason – I run a restaurant outside the metropolis.
An adequately PRed London start-up can expect to have queues around the block on opening night. In fact, it’s now expected they’ll be sold out before they open. A “soft opening” used to involve inviting family and friends to eat at half price in the week before launch so staff could try routines and snags could be spotted. Last week I received a press release proposing I make a “soft reservation” – yep, spend ages on hold, beg for a decent time slot, participate in staff training, pay full whack for the privilege and probably not be able to believe my luck at getting a seat.
When Giles Coren, restaurant critic for The Times, was recently accused of a metropolitan bias, he responded by pointing out that more than 80 per cent of new restaurants in the UK open in London. This gives diners there the chance to zealously pursue novelty. Outside the M25, though, it’s different. There are fewer customers in a small town so restaurants rely on repeat business.
It’s the nature of regular eating out that we all maintain playlists. For customers it gives a better guarantee of pleasure and consistency; and for out-of-town restaurants they are a lifeline – we need to be on your playlist or we’re out of business.
Tim Hayward is an FT Weekend contributing writer. For his video demonstrating how to cook a Christmas ham, go to ft.com/foodanddrink