The trouble with restaurant critics...

19 May 2002 by JR

Mid April may have marked a significant turning point for many restaurateurs, their first ray of optimism for several months.

2001 was not a particularly good trading year and the last quarter saw a significant downturn in corporate entertaining and international custom, trends that carried on during the first quarter of this year. But the combination of warmer weather, the beginning for many of a new corporate financial year after 1 April and slightly improved hotel occupancy does seem to have heralded an upswing.

At Sartoria, Conran's smart Italian restaurant in Conduit Street, this upturn is evinced in considerably heavier demand for their private diningrooms and higher wine bills. Sommelier Livio Italiani could barely hide his surprise at the possible return of good times. 'We had two large tables in last night and all they drank was Tignanello and Sassicaia, two of the most expensive wines on my list. Their bills were like this,' he added with a smile, stretching his hands from his head to the top of the table.

But for any restaurateur, success, or at least busier reservation lines, brings a new set of challenges, definitely more pleasant to deal with than negative cash flow and laying off staff but complex nevertheless. And, as they impact more obviously on you the customer, I asked several leading exponents of the profession just what the greatest of these challenges are as city restaurants enter the traditionally busy period of May, June and early July.

'It's the phone,' sighed Giorgio Locatelli, chef/proprietor of Locanda Locatelli which opened to justifiably rave reviews six weeks ago. 'One day we stopped counting how many times it rang but we gave up when it got to 1200! We are now booked six weeks in advance, which of course is wonderful, but it does mean that we have lost the sense of spontaneity, the ability to handle customers who just walk in off the street. Like every other restaurant we always keep one or two tables in case there has been a mistake over a booking but it is very, very difficult to get the balance right, especially in the evening when business people want a table to meet colleagues or to impress.'

For Rick Stein, the arrival of the television cameras which established him as an international star brought a specific and immediate challenge for his receptionists. 'Overnight we became a destination restaurant,' he explained with his trademark grimace and wave of his hand, 'but it wasn't as though we hadn't been extremely busy with local customers before then.'

'We mustn't upset those who have supported us for so long so we tried to establish computer databases for our regular local customers but it just became too complicated. Now my wife Jill has built up her own list of those who live nearby and come regularly and we keep tables back every evening for them. And we now open all year round and take part in Lunch with the FT which does appeal to those who live close by.'

And yet it still may not be possible to deliver what customers want. After 20 highly successful years at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, the challenge for Alice Waters is meeting peoples' expectations. 'Some people come here expecting to eat the best meal of their lives,' she explained. 'Our set dinner menu changes every day, and although it is always very good, it may not be the menu of people's dreams. And there are so many people coming through here that it does occasionally become difficult to treat people in a personal way. This is hard for me because personal attention and warmth is what this place should be about.'

To discover whether the challenges are the same for the growing number of restaurant groups on either side of the Atlantic, I turned to David Loewi, MD of 14 very disparate Conran restaurants around the UK, and to Danny Meyer, whose fifth restaurant, Blue Smoke Rising, recently opened in New York.

In both instances the challenges are broader and perhaps, not surprisingly, both pointed the finger, albeit indirectly, at those who judge restaurants professionally. 'The problem for any restaurateur,' explained Loewi, 'is that a string of good reviews or a very concerted busy period can lead the staff to begin to believe their own publicity, to think that they are invariably as good as they are cracked up to be. This can seriously affect the front of house staff and the implications for the customer can be very unpleasant. Receptionists can make you feel that you are lucky even to get a table whilst wine waiters look down their nose at your wine choice. I know because, as a customer, it has happened to me.'

Meyer was even more specific. 'The main challenge brought on by success is the urgency with which our new restaurants are expected to "grow up" to meet a heightened level of excellence set by our existing restaurants. While wine writers understand that a just-bottled wine should be tasted for its promise and pedigree, restaurants are invariably reviewed as soon as they open, well before they have even begun to reach their potential. The success of our previous restaurants is a blessing in that it creates immediate interest in any new sibling; at the same time it can be a curse by creating early, unattainable expectations.'

These challenges, which so obviously affect how any customer will be treated or perceive the restaurant, are of course a function of the business itself. Restaurants fulfill a more basic human need than films, books, music and the theatre - other pleasures subject to the same constant review process - and never reach the completely finished state that, for example, a bottle of wine does. But this does, and I trust always will, contribute even further to their potential excitement despite the odd disappointment along the way. These may be the result of the restaurant but, I am not too proud to admit, may also be due to the reviewer.

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