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Feature: Everything But The Food

Recently, I have written two articles, Restaurant Tables -Heaven and Hell and Great Service Makes Great Restaurants, about different aspects of dining out – service, in its wider sense; and tables in restaurants. This third piece brings everything together, rather like a good sauce.

My overarching thesis is that eating out is about so much more than just the food. Obviously, the food is vitally important; but it’s not everything.

Indeed, a ham (or salad, or cheese, or whatever) sandwich in a stunning setting with great company (or alone, if you prefer) might be the best thing you ever ate, while a gourmet dinner in the wrong environment might be the worst. Life is complex and eating out is part of that complexity.

In that light, eating establishments – restaurants, but all other eating places too – should look at themselves with a very critical eye. What is it like for the customer? What does the approach to the entrance say about your establishment? As noted in one of my earlier pieces, we recently visited a “fancy” West End, London restaurant and found the front door stuck. It was hard to open. Why? The maître d’ said, “it always does that”. What? Why has it not been fixed already? Don’t they want people to come in? Does your establishment invite, attract and welcome; or, does it (probably inadvertently) repel and exclude?

In some places, this whole “entrance” thing starts well before the front door. There are the signposts to the location and parking to think of.

How hard, or easy, is it to find the place on a wet February night? How pleasant is the route from the car park to door? Is it a well-lit path? Think in terms of a nervous customer who’s never been before. Are you helping them, or hindering? Do you care ?! (Hint: you should.)

Once through the door, what’s the next part of the “customer experience”? Is there a smile? A cloakroom? What impression and atmosphere is created for the customer - it’s the restaurant’s job to do that. Has anyone thought about it? If not, why not?

Then we progress to the table. I’ve written about that – so I’ll stay away from size and shape and more detailed comments; but does the table add to the event? Does it look good? Does it feel good? What napkins are used ? Is that part of your statement of purpose? We serve great food, but it only merits paper napkins. Recently we ate at a great place in Malta. Lovely setting and delicious food; but the paper napkins took away something from the experience, and that made me a little bit disappointed.

Cutlery. Where to start? Why use cutlery that feels uncomfortable to use or doesn’t work correctly – e.g. blunt knives. Why not pay attention to these details? Recently, I’ve eaten in some places where the cutlery and the plates don’t work together. Why does the owner give their guests these problems? It detracts from the total experience, and that’s not a result anyone wants.

Glass wear…. I have some lovely, antique glasses that I use at home. They do make drinks taste better - it’s psychological, I’m sure, but that doesn’t matter. So, while I’m not mad enough to demand Georgian goblets for my claret, I’m bold enough to argue that good glass helps. I like to feel the weight of a glass. I want them clean and sparkling; cold, for cold drinks or warmed for warm ones. This too is part of the overall and complete service that is being delivered as part of the whole experience. Yes, if this is a cafe for ham, egg and chips, I don’t expect too many refinements. But it can still be a welcoming, inviting place that urges the customer to sit, eat, be happy, spend a little more, and to prolong the enjoyment of being there.

There are restaurants I can think of that I’d drag myself to for my last meal and not just because of the food; because for the total package. Places where everything is just right – not too much, not too little. One of those places is in Puglia, and I’ve mentioned it before [link]. Another is the original Ivy restaurant, between Soho and Covent Garden. That is a magnificent place on a Sunday evening, particularly a wet Sunday evening, in winter. The entrance is watched over by staff who whisk away the sopping coat and umbrella and then usher you through to the main room where the lighting is just right – soft, warming.

The bar glistens and beckons. You get sucked into the place. It’s a home from home (you dream), and the menu offers shepherd’s pie, among other things. What’s not to like?

If you don’t run the Ivy, or that amazing place in Puglia, take a trip to one of them; or to anywhere that fits the bill. Experience a well-polished establishment that has everything right. Go. Look. Learn. Take away the little ideas of learning that can be applied to your own establishment. It may be a colour, a light effect, the service, the glass.

Apply that something and see what happens. I suspect that whatever happens, it will be good.


Chatting Food Contributor: Chris Parr

International commercial lawyer, business advisor, mentor and mediator with a passion for good food and drink from across the world. I love to cook but use recipes as starting points. I love farmers’ markets and artisanal products, especially cheese, fruit and vegetables. I’ve lived in Europe and spent time in Japan, India, Hong Kong, Korea and the USA.

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