This article was also published in the Financial Times.
An evening in a restaurant can last longer than a night at the theatre. At certain restaurants dinner for two can be more expensive even than two tickets in the stalls of the grandest opera house. And restaurants, I know from experience, can certainly divide opinion as much as any new exhibition or recently released film.
Yet in all these cultural media there is far more explanation, dialogue and even an audio guide designed to allow the customer to maximise their pleasure, to help us get the best from the time we spend enjoying the creations of others.
No such dialogue exists in the restaurant world. Once the initial press release has gone out, 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 my thoughts for a talk I was giving on 8 March about my book The Art of the Restaurateur (now available as an ebook from the UK or US iTunes store) at the Shanghai Literary Festival, I took the opportunity to ask several restaurateurs I respect one simple question: what advice would they give to maximise anyone's time in a restaurant?
My first stop was Paris, having pinned down Enrico Bernardo, initially a chef, then the World's Best Sommelier, and now a restaurateur at Il Vino and at Goust.
Perhaps because of this highly unusual professional background, Bernardo responded with an answer I simply had not expected.
'It's very important that the customer chooses the most appropriate restaurant for the occasion. Today, in most major cities there are now so many restaurants that this should be the very first step. If it's to be a romantic dinner, then don't go somewhere that is too big and consequently too noisy. And if it's a business lunch, pick somewhere where the food is light and not too intrusive. Today, the guest has so much power.'
From Bernardo's personal perspective, being aware of why customers have chosen one of his restaurants enables him to train his staff to meet what have become very different goals. Lunch at Goust must not last more than 45 minutes while dinner at Il Vino can go on for three hours or longer. 'As the restaurateur I must train my staff to ensure that every customer leaves happy. Knowing why they have come to one particular restaurant enables me to do this much more easily.'
I swapped the phone for the stairs at the back of Le Caprice restaurant that took me down two floors of kitchen to the basement office of Jesus Adorno, its general manager.
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, particularly in the evenings, restaurateurs have to cope with a constant stream of young, highly enthusiastic diners. My stop was at the recently opened Merchants Tavern to talk to their highly respected general 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 and 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 piece of advice was that even though the description of a dish may not mention a particular ingredient, it may still include something you are allergic to, so do tell your waiter of any allergies. This linked into what has become my standard piece of advice: do not assume that your waiter or a waitress is a mind reader.
If they were, in my view, they would not be waiting on tables but rather playing poker in a Macau casino making their personal fortunes. So from the outset, tell your waiter what you want, why you are there and, most importantly, by when roughly you would like to be well fed and paying the bill.
After I mentioned this piece of advice 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 the customer on their own. 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 a glass in your hand', he opined.
All comments warmly appreciated.