What needs to change if restaurants are to survive and prosper.
While the restaurant industry worldwide faces extraordinary challenges as it looks to reopen, there is at least the opportunity to learn, to improve, to make sure that we, the customers, are put centre stage when restaurants finally emerge.
Here are a few suggestions to restaurateurs for this new era of dining out.
Firstly, make first impressions count. Ensure that your receptionist is the most welcoming individual. Let the customer feel his or her warmth, his or her welcome. There will be no shortage of applicants for this job, which pays well in the winter months with the tips from those with coats and umbrellas. No more coldness or snootiness, please.
Also, this virus should bring to an end a creeping practice among the most popular restaurants of keeping a party waiting before seating them until everyone has arrived. Your table is either ready or it isn’t, and if six of your party of ten are on time then they should be allowed to sit down.
Ensure that the menus and wine list are on the table within seconds of the customer sitting down. This is perhaps for me the most irritating aspect of my profession. I arrive at a restaurant hungry and thirsty – and I admire the growing practice of many restaurateurs of putting still and sparkling water on the table free of charge. But even when I am working, I would like to talk to my friends. I find those restaurants that keep you waiting deeply annoying. We are here to eat and drink. Let’s get on with it.
There should also be a universal effort to rid us entirely of what to my mind has become the most infuriating saying of the past decade. I refer not to ‘take back control’, nor to the phrase PPE, but to this ridiculous selection of words that I believe too many waiters and waitresses repeat far too many times: ‘your food will be served as and when it is ready in the kitchen’.
Of course it will, I have often longed to retort – that is precisely why I am here, to be fed, watered and looked after. This is a lazy habit that does not reflect well on the restaurant or its kitchen. I have never forgotten our meal at the Sichuan Governmental Canteen in Beijing with the FT’s James Kynge, a fluent Mandarin speaker. Our dessert arrived first. ‘Well', came the explanation from our waitress number 24, ‘we had made them and the rest of your meal wasn’t ready’.
The disappearance of this most annoying phrase should go hand in hand with the disappearance of another recent restaurant phenomenon, the increasing custom of ‘plates for sharing’. Now I am sure that for hygiene reasons this style of service will have to disappear but let me be the first to go on record and say how happy I will be. Sharing plates have, in my opinion, had more than their 15 minutes of fame.
Which brings me to the biggest change I would like to see in the future. All restaurateurs speak of the massive team effort that is required to run any successful restaurant, that their role is to look after their staff so that they can in turn look after their customers. But who constitutes this team is precisely what I would like to know.
What I would therefore like to see appearing on every daily printed menu is a small box that lists the names and roles of those who will be playing a significant role in bringing you everything the restaurant has to offer. The total number on the team; the name of the chef, the sous chef, the person in charge of the wine service, and even the kitchen porters. This would be truly honourable and illuminating, and would add true value to the overall enjoyment of eating out.
I am not alone in believing that a great deal will change. Restaurants may not revert to those we enjoyed even at the beginning of this year until a universal vaccine is introduced and enforced. Until then I fear for the livelihoods of many who hitherto brought me great pleasure in bars, cafes and restaurants in the many locations we have come to expect them.
These too will change. The notion of not being able to enjoy a cappuccino while waiting for a train or a plate of sushi in the middle of a performance would have been unthinkable four months ago. But now who can envision a trip to the theatre?
And in this evolution, many will lose their jobs. I think the phenomenon of chefs operating multiple locations will be forced to come to an end. I believe that anyone exposed to the ‘new’ London and New York will, perforce, suffer more than most. And the closing of restaurants will lead to a closing of a vital escape valve for the many talented people who found their true expression in creating extraordinary dishes, pairing them ingeniously or who just enjoyed looking after their fellow man, or woman.
But it is this ‘esprit de corps’ that gives me hope. Nobody has ever opened a restaurant as a way of getting rich quick. Gross profit margins of 10% have always been the norm. When normalcy returns, so will restaurants. Smaller, more friendly. Perhaps not quite as exciting but definitely just as satisfying,