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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.
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”.
“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.
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