I realise my limitations when it comes to writing this column. Firstly I am a man and, consequently, I am treated differently from female customers. Secondly, I concentrate on the food, wine and service while many others use restaurants primarily as neutral, mutually convenient meeting places which will feed them as they talk business. And while I spend a great deal, perhaps too much, of my disposable income in restaurants, my expense account at the FT is decidedly finite.
To gain a very different perspective on restaurants I pursued my lunch invitation, (with, I hasten to add my wife’s full approval), with a successful female hedge-fund manager whose bosses prefer that she remain anonymous. The pursuit was necessary because although my guest was happy to meet me, her constant travels to Paris, Geneva, the US and San Juan to meet prospective and existing clients, resulted in a series of polite texts cancelling successive lunch dates.
On the morning that we were to finally meet there was an extra specification to her initial request for a 1pm booking: we had to meet close to her Berkeley Square office. As we sat down in Umu, my choice because it is a classy Japanese restaurant with a broad range of set price lunch menus, she began by explaining that her specific lunch times during the week were dependent on her conference call schedule with her team in New York. And distance away from the office, I assumed, meant a loss of business time.
“It’s actually more than that,” this elegant 40 year old explained as we agreed on which mineral water to drink. “The entertaining I and all those in my field do is about establishing a relationship and trust and so a large part of what goes into choosing a restaurant has a great deal to do with minimising the risk of anything going wrong or, even worse, causing any embarrassment.”
“I worked in New York for four years and we used to use Bice restaurant a lot because it was close to our offices. I learnt that there are inherent dangers in going too far. Crossing the street in New York is tricky because the pavements are so crowded you can lose contact with the person you are with. And if you are a woman taking a man out to lunch, which I do most of the time, you don’t really want to be sliding about on the back seat of a cab with them.”
My guest laughed but her expression turned far more sombre when she explained the time she had to spend winning back a once favourite client whom, in her absence, a young assistant had decided to take from the City, where she was then working, to the River Café in west London for dinner. “It took them an hour and half to get there by which time they had run out of things to talk about and he had even forgotten to book a cab for the return journey. It was a disaster.”
She explained that sensitivity towards her clients is a perennial factor in planning where to meet. “I have seen clients struggle over how to eat edamame (the small, green soybeans served in Japanese restaurants as a snack) and I have learnt the hard way not to take businessmen out of their comfort zone, it is not the right environment for a lesson in chopsticks. I would never dream of taking a client anywhere where the menu is only in French, for example, and a meal of numerous courses is definitely a no-no. Two courses now is a long dinner although Europeans are much more likely to linger than Americans. And, as you might expect, New Yorkers are the most brusque. They like to meet, eat, hear what is meaningful and go to bed.”
Earlier starts in the mornings mean earlier dinner reservations, she continued. “Ten years ago we would often meet clients in the bar at The Dorchester for a pre-dinner drink and then a round of Dewars on the rocks afterwards but that does not happen any longer. I would never meet in a bar beforehand now because I would have to spend time attracting the barman’s attention when I really should be focusing all my attention on my client.” And her subsequent comment that ideally she would like to sit down to dinner at 7pm, and the latest at 8pm, coincided with a recent comment from Silvano Giraldin, maitre d’ at Le Gavroche, who told me that the biggest change in his working life over the past decade has been that, as his customers wanted to eat earlier and earlier, he is now arriving home an hour earlier after work than he used to.
Not that this woman is likely to eat at Le Gavroche too often. “Hotel and restaurant prices in London are very difficult to justify and unnecessary and unjustifiable expenses are totally unacceptable. If you appear to show no regard for cost by taking your client somewhere expensive then it is the same as showing no regard for your clients. I would never dream of taking anyone to Pétrus, for example. It’s just too expensive even if we had signed up a large, new client.”
Her ideal client is one that she can take out once a month for as little as 30 minutes rather than offering a much more lavish affair twice a year. “I use Automat (the upmarket American diner on Dover Street) a lot or Mosaico on Albemarle Street for a good plate of pasta. And The Mirabelle invariably meets my clients’ expectations of what a London restaurant should look like as the food and service are good, the tables are far enough apart for a private conversation and there is a separate bar area in which to meet. But if there is a precise agenda to be got through I will happily meet for a sandwich at Pret a Manger. On my last trip to New York I took a very important, potential client to Rosen’s Deli on 51st Street.”
After 15 years in the business this frequent hostess has a clear idea of what she does not want from the restaurants she chooses: tables which are too close together; the constant topping up of the single bottle of wine she will now order with dinner (half of which may be left) and the over-zealous solicitousness that manifests itself in too many interruptions asking ‘Is everything all right?’
She also has a very clear idea of how best to entertain. “Keep it simple and effective. Don’t pull out pieces of paper unless you are in a private room, and lead so that your guest always feels comfortable. I always say that I am going to have a first course so there is no confusion and after the main course I order the dessert, if we are having one, and coffee and the bill all at the same time. Then if things are going well I can keep my attention focused on my guest. And if they are not going well we can just keep going. In this business you never give up.”