Sometimes I wonder if we aren’t losing sight of what a restaurant was, is and should be. A restaurant is a place where we go to be fed, yes, but it is also a place of entertainment, relaxation, comfort – a haven. The clue is in the name: it is ‘restorative’.
But there have been a few ‘what I hate about restaurants’ lists about the place in the last month, so I thought it was time for some balance, a list of the things we love about restaurants, the reasons why they still represent the very apogee of civilisation.
I don’t know about you, but I still get a tiny tingle of excitement in my belly when I am heading out to eat, whether it is to an old favourite, or someplace new that everyone is raving about. Here’s why:
That moment you open the menu
Those exquisite few seconds of anticipation are so freighted with expectation. Everything is possible at this moment, the world awaits, this is hope in excelsis. No matter that 99 time out of 100 some or other aspect of the meal will likely disappoint, there is always the chance this could be The One.
I don’t have this at home because I have a life, so I appreciate it all the more when I dine out. It looks lovely, at least before I start dribbling all over it, and it feels lovely, too. It is a mark of respect and generosity from the restaurateur to their guest: You are worthy of a clean tablecloth. And it soaks up the bloody noise.
Usually, at home, about half way through preparing the evening meal, there comes a moment when I realise I’d much rather have had fish, or something vegetarian, or a hearty stew, or something Japanese, but I am now too far down the weary road to macaroni and cheese. Tomorrow, I sigh to myself, tomorrow I will make that cassoulet. Tonight it’s too late. I have committed to the carbs.
The Fiddly Stuff
I am never going to de-bone a pig’s trotter or place individual almond ‘scales’ on a filet of trout. I am never going to reduce a litre of stock down to a tablespoon, or embark on the complex procedure that renders veal bones to consommé. I will never stink up my kitchen with Lièvre à la Royale or hot tempura oil. But I know a someone who will.
They give me stuff I would never have thought of
I’m a fair cook. I can do most things, but I have the imagination of a chair leg. I would never have thought to freeze then grate foie gras, or to match miso with cod, or that olive oil would work in ice cream. Good job restaurants!
In the good kitchens, everyone has done their 10,000 hours. Visit a proper, top class kitchen, and all is quiet precision. I once read it described as being like when the bad guys take over the nuclear submarine. The result of this sociopathic intensity is consistency. That is what you are paying for.
Choose three, a dessert and no main. You are now a playa.
If there is a bread basket from any Alain Ducasse restaurant in proximity, I will raise up on my toes, beat my chest and roar if anyone dares approach. Give me some really salty butter and leave us alone for an hour, and there’s a chance I might let you may mate with me afterwards.
They make you feel that choosing the second most expensive bottle on the list is a choice worthy of Solomon.
Yes, it might be high, but this was a ‘business meeting’, remember? It’s all deductible.
Drinking in the middle of the day
It’d be rude not to. Plus they don’t only just have Jacob’s Creek. They have other stuff. Goood stuff.
The washing up
In a restaurant, you don’t even have to hear someone else moaning about it.
The role of the diner
The waiters and chefs are not the only ones with a job to do in the restaurant. You, dear diner, play a part too. You have a responsibility and, should you fulfill it, you will have the satisfaction of having contributed to the experience of your fellow diners. So, put your fucking phone away, put on a happy face, keep the noise level reasonable, and, please above all, remember this: if your meal requires cutlery, it is completely unacceptable to wear shorts while eating it.
(Rereading this, I seem inadvertently to have reached an unexpected, perhaps unfashionable conclusion. I guess what I am really saying here is this: go to Paris. The Parisians invented the European concept of the restaurant, and they still know more than most, what makes a good one.)
Read more by Michael Booth:
‘It’s Time to Put New Nordic Cuisine out of its Misery’
‘Pho vs Ramen’
‘In Search of the Best Pizza in the World’