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What makes a good restaurant?

(This piece first appeared in the Western Mail magazine, Saturday 25 October)

The Western Mail magazine's wine guru, Jamie Goode, who runs wineanorak.com, reveals his essential ingredients for the ideal dining out experience.

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 restaurant.

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 place.

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 donít.

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 generous-sized glasses. 

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 shame.

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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