And before I start counting the ways, please do NOT write in to point out that I ought to have said ye instead of thee. As I may have written before, there’s room for only one annoying pedant in this blog. As a boss of L’s, a great stalwart of the Labour Party, was wont to say, One man, one vote – and I’ve got it. In last week’s column I was expressing a certain reluctance to get involved in restaurant food outwith the premises themselves, and found myself wondering why.
Many of us enjoy eating out to a greater or lesser degree. I spend more time in this activity than most. Let’s analyse the attractions. Why DO we go out to pay significant sums of money for what is one of the most basic of human needs, sustenance? Well, many special occasions are celebrated by breaking bread outwith the home. Many eateries are aware of this and are geared up to make a fuss of the celebrant. It may be to meet friends and family; it may be for romance or seduction. Prosaically it may just be for fuel. There are many apartments in New York which have dispensed with kitchens altogether, a trend which, I understand, is increasingly being followed in London. (Excuse me while I pause for a quiet fit of the screaming habdabs.) It may be for peace and quiet. When I was working under crazy pressure (ie for about 40 years from the late 70s), I would often take myself out for a bite, draw breath, unscramble the brain, and scribble down a few ideas. So I do apologise to those restaurateurs who were alarmed unnecessarily by the sight of a sole male diner in a corner with a notebook.
Summing that up, in the main we eat out for pleasure. Pleasure that starts, or ought to start, as soon as we cross the threshold. Some cultures are better at welcome than others. In some places they do it more naturally than others; however, before I get too snobby about the hi-my-name’s-tom-and-I’ll-be-your-server-tonight stuff, I cast my mind back to the delight my kids got when visiting TGI Fridays or the equivalent, or to the cheery Ciao, bella! cry common in many Italian style places, even if the waiters happen to be from Poland, Bulgaria or the like. Better that than the indifferent sneer so common 50 years ago.
And if it’s a place where you are known it can be like visiting friends. It may be an understated smile, a handshake or a hug – I know of places where I will receive all of these – but it just makes you feel good. Once upon a time in Britain, service was good, bad or indifferent: today I would suggest that it is great, good or so-so. (Recent experience suggests that to get REALLY bad service you have to go to France.)
And have you noticed that I haven’t once mentioned the food? It drives chefs crazy to realise that they are not the most important people in most restaurants. Yes, if you’re a foodie, and you’re visiting to eat at the cutting edge, that may well be your raison de visite (fancy French stuff – did you notice what I did there?) but how many of us fall, or can afford to fall, into that category? I glanced back over the reviews of the highest scoring places in Tom Eats! over the last couple of years. I could remember them all quite clearly – at least the places and the people – but in most cases I had to consult the column to remember what I ate.
Some, with more visual memories than I, rejoice in and recall the pretty pictures on a restaurant plate. This is a part of the chef’s art which I admire, but to which I could no more aspire than I could paint the Mona Lisa; and I certainly have no chance of replicating this when transferring the food from a takeaway carton on to a plate at home. I’m very happy at my own table (better, obviously, when it’s crowded with friends as it will be again soon) and I eat very well in my own dining room. There are no waiting staff to interact with, no first impressions to savour. In normal times I can create a great experience here, but it is quite different from eating out. For that reason I don’t see the huge benefits of taking half of one and transplanting it to another. It’s not to say that this column won’t feature takeaway food in future, but if you make a list of eating out, cooking at home and the takeaway, the latter languishes in a distant third.