The challenge of Sunday evenings


Sunday evenings present restaurateurs and hoteliers with a particular challenge that most of the former decline even to rise to. 

That is because most of them simply choose to close. This is principally because most restaurants, and their staff, need at least one day off work and also because demand tends to be weak on Sunday, so many restaurants close for both lunch and dinner.

This rule tends not to apply to restaurants located within London’s West End and in lower Manhattan, where staying open on Sunday evenings can be hugely popular and equally profitable, even without all the reservations pre and post theatre (almost all theatres are closed on Sundays).

But, as I wrote in the FT back in 2002, Sunday evenings may not be quite as busy as other nights of the week, but the average spend can be even higher. They appeal to three distinct markets: those who don't have children or whose children have already left home; those who spend the weekend in the country and return home to an empty fridge (this was in the days before Deliveroo); and finally, because demand is slightly weaker, Sunday evenings appeal to those who want a reservation when it suits them rather than when it suits the restaurant.

As a result of writing this article I made one startling discovery – that on Sunday evenings those restaurants that do open tend to have the highest sales of all their most expensive ingredients, whether this be Dover sole, lobster or caviar. Wine sales also tend to be excellent with those on Sundays being the next-highest to those on the Thursdays so beloved by those with a corporate credit card.

There is today one other factor that attracts so many out on a Sunday evening, as was explained to me by Pablo Sacerdotte, the charming Argentine maître d’ of the Marea Alta restaurant in Barcelona. 'We are open on Sunday evenings and we attract an enormous number of restaurant staff, front of house and chefs, whose restaurants are invariably closed', he explained.

But what does Sunday night mean for hoteliers, whose restaurants usually have to stay open? With room occupancy invariably at its lowest on this particular day and many guests being tempted to go out to a restaurant, Sunday evening tends to be a quiet night. But does it need to be?

Certainly not, if these hoteliers were to follow the example of two of their more adventurous colleagues that are located 10,247 kilometres (6,367 miles) from one another (so that they are unlikely to have colluded).

The first is Ballymaloe House, a 40-minute drive outside Cork, Ireland, while the other is the Prince Maurice Hotel, just outside Flaque on the far sunnier east coast of Mauritius.

What links these two very different hotels is the spread that they put on on a Sunday evening. They are each referred to as a buffet although this is a word that is currently so out of favour that a new appellation is needed. Hazel Allen, one of Ballymaloe’s band of strong women, explained, 'The key message is that our Sunday buffet is not an opportunity to use up leftovers! Everything is prepared fresh during the Sunday afternoon.'

I have enjoyed this buffet on at least four occasions and I can vouch for everything Hazel says. There is roast beef, lamb, sides of Irish salmon, lots and lots of fresh Irish seafood and shellfish, all with delicious sauces and relishes, trays of salads and interesting vegetable dishes, many of which they grow themselves, and enough desserts to see off an entire battalion.

As if this change from the usual menu were not enough, there is also a change in the service personnel. Giving many of the kitchen and waiting staff the night off, it is the Allen family who step into the breach. There is Hazel, ably supported by her husband Rory, and another man (not family) who has worked only Sunday nights carving the beef for the past two decades.

This is one of the many particular advantages of changing the style of service on a Sunday evening – the opportunity for the Allen family to meet those who are staying with them. And for those who are staying a few nights, the buffet provides an interesting change. The buffet costs €75 a head and has to be popular since it was initially introduced by the late Myrtle Allen, Ballymaloe’s founder, in 1965.

It must have been jet lag that forced memories of the Ballymaloe buffet out of our consciousness shortly after we had checked in to the Prince Maurice Hotel. Certainly, the torrential rain that fell en route from the airport was probably the only thing on our mind. In any event, when asked by the welcoming receptionist whether we wanted to eat that night in their Asian restaurant or at the Mauritian buffet, we chose the former. And what a mistake that would have been – so thank you to Jerome Carlier, the hotel’s enthusiastic sommelier who is in charge of a great wine list, for changing our minds.

The big difference between the two hotels' approach to Sunday night – other than that there is no member of the Allen family present – is that at the Prince Maurice there is in fact a menu, complete with a price of 2,760 Mauritian rupees per person (£60) at the bottom.

Printed on a single sheet of paper this lists everything on offer under the heading of a Mauritian buffet starting with inventive local salads; spicy seafood; dishes served in a glass; the farata, the traditional Mauritain flatbread, and puri, the deep-fried, unleavened Indian flatbread; the spicy roast chicken from the rotisserie; the 10 main courses; and the even more numerous desserts.

This meal, as well as being fun, provided us with an introduction to several dishes we would otherwise never have tasted. A spicy bourgeois tartare, principally tuna, a dish that is very popular in the Seychelles; a wonderfully refreshing cold coconut and mango soup; fish salad with coriander and pickled chilli; and the vegetable curry with coconut milk.

The effect that this change of style of service seems to have on the staff seems equally positive, whether they are principally Irish or principally Mauritian. In both settings they seem to smile more and to be really enjoying themselves. The banter between the two young men, one (pictured above) making the farata as quickly as he could while his colleague was busy turning the fish kebabs for all he was worth, was enough to make even this somewhat jaundiced restaurant-goer smile.

The buffet at the Prince Maurice was introduced in 2002 after a management get together in 2001. It is still going strong after 17 years. I wonder just what it would take for a London hotelier to follow suit?

Ballymaloe House

Constance Prince Maurice Hotel