makes a good restaurant?
piece first appeared in the Western Mail magazine, Saturday 25
Western Mail magazine's wine guru, Jamie Goode, who runs
wineanorak.com, reveals his essential ingredients for the ideal dining
Eating out is an expensive business, so you really want to be
sure of a good experience. Sadly, this doesnít always happen. Here
Iím going to sum up what I feel are the characteristics of a good
Successful restaurants offer a seamless dining experience Ė
you only notice what good restaurants do so well when you experience
the same things going wrong in bad restaurants. So although I suspect
it would be a lot easier to write about what makes a bad restaurant,
Iíll try instead to pinoint what it is that makes a good one.
For me, part of the fun in eating out is the fact that itís
an unhurried social experience, with plenty of time to interact with
your dining companions. Thereís something about the restaurant
setting that encourages relaxed conversation and enjoyment of food and
wine. For this to happen, though, a number of ingredients must be in
First, the restaurant needs to be appropriately busy. It
doesnít need to be crammed so full that the noise level becomes
intolerable, but equally thereís nothing quite as bad as being the
only diners in an eerily silent room. And the tables need to be spaced
far enough apart that you donít feel you are being eavesdropped in
your conversation. What creates the buzz or mood of a place is
indefinable, but itís an important factor.
Talking of noise levels, Iím aware this is quite a personal
choice, but I donít like background music when Iím dining out.
Music has such an ability to colour the atmosphere of an evening
itís very hard for restaurants to get it right, and most often they
Service is a key issue. Again, itís a question of balance,
and itís another area where you tend to notice it more if it is bad.
Good service is unselfconscious, itís unfussy and itís
appropriately attentive. I donít want waitstaff hovering around,
anxious to interrupt at the slightest nod, but then again I donít
want to have to sit there for 20 minutes before I can get someone to
bring another bottle of fizzy water. I appreciate friendly service,
but I donít want wait staff to engage me in too much conversation,
or be ingratiating. And I canít bear it when the proprietor comes
out and pretends Iím his best friend and most loyal customer. Iím
sorry that sounds a bit mean and antisocial, but itís true.
As in so many walks of life, timing is everything. The
restaurant staff have can a major effect on the success or failure of
an evening by getting the timing right or wrong. I want a gap between
courses, but itís got to be just right or things feel hurried or
drawn out. Restaurants have a frustrating knack of slowing things down
too much towards the end of the meal, when it can take an epoch to
order coffee, and even longer to get the bill Ė probably my number
one complaint about restaurants in general.
Restaurant wine is a contentious subject. Restaurants
typically use the margins on drinks to make their profits. Itís
ironic that while most of the work in a restaurant goes into
preparation of the food, the margins on the raw ingredients are modest
compared with that on drinks, where the only skill required is being
able to pull a cork or twist a screwcap and pour.
I donít begrudge restaurateurs their profits Ė theyíve
got to make a living somehow Ė but itís a shame that serious wine
nuts are penalized more than most when eating out. A typical mark-up
on restaurant wine is at least three times retail. This doesnít hurt
too much when you are buying a £5 bottle of wine for £15, but if you
are plumping for something decent that would retail for £20, youíll
be paying the proprietor £40 plus just for pulling a cork.
The fact that most restaurateurs are a little embarrassed by
their pricing is indicated by the fact that many merchants who
specialize in supplying eateries make Ďon tradeí-only brands and
labels. This is so that you wonít be able to buy the same wine in
Tesco or Oddbins and see just how extravagant the mark-up is.
For me, a good restaurant is one where the wine list is
imaginative, with a well chosen selection of wines, and where the
pricing isnít too rapacious. Credit to any restarateur who has a
sliding scale of mark-ups, with a smaller percentage on pricier
bottles, so that people arenít put off drinking more expensive
wines. Many restaurants buy just from one merchant. As a result, the
list has a rather formulaic feel, with a few hits and lots of misses.
Itís rare to find a restaurant where much thought and work has gone
into the wine list where wines have been carefully sourced from a
variety of suppliers, but these are the restaurants I tend to award
with my custom. Iím happy to pay a decent mark-up where I feel the
owner has taken some care in choosing decent wines that match her
cooking. If a restaurant can offer mature vintages of fine wines (and
not just off-vintages of famous names Ė a typical trick to snare the
less wary), then all the better. The glassware also matters: even a
humble house wine can taste much more interesting out of proper
For many restaurants, the cost of assembling and stocking a
decent wine list with mature fine wines is prohibitive. This is where
BYO (bring your own) comes in handy. I wouldnít expect every
restaurant to allow customers to BYO wine for free Ė although this
is usually the case in Australia, for example Ė but it is a wine
friendly policy to allow customers to bring special bottles by
arrangement, assuming that these are not on the wine list. Iím happy
to pay a corkage fee for this to make up for the restaurantís lost
profit, which depending on the restaurant could be as high as £15.
But sadly most proprietors wonít even consider this, which is a
Iíve saved possibly the most important aspect of the
restaurant experience to last Ė the food. Style of food is a largely
matter of taste. But whatever the style, I tend to value simple
cooking with good quality ingredients over fussy and over-elaborate
food. Some chefs mistake novelty for innovation, mixing in bizarre
combinations of flavours. Not for me, Iím afraid. I also value
authenticity: If Iím eating Italian, for instance, I donít want
some ersatz theme-park-style mock-up of an Italian restaurant with
fake stylised food, but instead Iíd opt for modest surroundings with
genuine Italian dishes made from the best ingredients.
Most of all, I want to go to the sort of restaurant where the
proprietor is passionate about food and wine, and whose primary goal
is excellence, not making a fortune. Decent restaurants should be
cherished and valued, and we should reward them with our custom.
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