All restaurants are different and there are more (and more varied) eateries popping up every year, but no matter what the cuisine, style or price there are five things I look for in a restaurant:
A cliché I know and a term I dislike, but no-one wants to dine in an empty restaurant. The same goes for one with so much ambient noise you can’t hear yourself think let alone the conversation at your table. Creating an atmosphere in a restaurant is no easy feat, you have to start with the layout of the room; position tables close enough for an intimate feel, but not so close the diners feel self conscious. Your choice of music – if indeed you decide to have music playing – and the volume it’s played at can play a significant role in the overall dining experience. Lighting, temperature, everything down to the style of the tables and chairs and the way they influence diners’ posture needs to be considered. Some of these decisions need to be taken only once, some at the beginning of a service and some need constant monitoring and adjustment, but all need careful thought and good judgement in order to achieve success.
Well Trained Staff
Staff is one of the most important factors affecting the customers experience of a restaurant – they can make or break a service. Many have said, and I completely agree, that the service you receive in a restaurant is more important than the food. I live for food, drink and restaurants, but even for those that don’t scrutinise their dining experience as I do, it is abundantly clear when service staff are well trained and make an effort. Attentive, knowledgeable and intuitive staff are gold dust. I love the way hospitality roles are seen as respectable professions on the continent, the high staff turnovers and proportion of part-time/temporary workers in the UK irks me – it takes time to train good staff, and it’s just not worth the investment if you’re not going to retain your trainees for any length of time. When I was still in restaurants and hotels training staff was one of my favourite things to do, seeing them develop and grow in confidence, ask good questions and eventually know exactly what they’re doing without prompt was extremely satisfying. When you run a restaurant, knowing that your staff is more than capable of handling anything that comes their way gives you great confidence and allows you to do the job you’re supposed to be doing. Services run smoothly and customers notice.
The produce used in a restaurant kitchen is key to its success, no matter how good the chef is with bad ingredients you’ll always make bad dishes. Customers know what they’re likely to spend when they make the booking or walk in the door – they don’t mind spending that little bit extra if the end result justifies it. At the end of the day the difference made by a chef spending a just a few more pence on each ingredient is very noticeable. Good components also lend themselves well to simpler dishes, chefs sometimes have a tendency to overcomplicate things and while on most occasions it doesn’t necessarily detract from the meal a dish with fewer ingredients can allow the individual flavours to really shine. Good produce, in season and well handled by the chef makes all the difference.
Well Judged Menu
How often have you opened a restaurant’s menu and thought it was a bit all over the place? Dishes that differ greatly in price, rustic dishes, formal dishes, dishes of every cuisine under the sun and all on the same page? It very rarely works – your menu is the very embodiment of your restaurant, your personality on a plate (if you’ll excuse the pun). It’s no good pitching yourself to young families and the older generations if you’re going to plonk a 24oz 72 day wet-aged Dexter steak on the menu, nor can you target wealthy, fine diners with a generic chicken liver parfait on toast. It has to come together as a single, clear statement of your concept. It’s important to have variety, that’s not the issue here, but your menu must provide adequate choice, fit with your audience, and allow many different combinations of dishes to come together well as a multi-course meal. The ‘gastro pub’ is perhaps the worst culprit, attempting to cobble together ‘pub classics’, modern British/French cuisine and Asian influenced fare on a single laminated A4 sheet. Menu creation takes time, careful planning and consideration and a skilled chef can write one that addresses all of these needs without falling into any traps – the best can pull off a few ‘off piste’ plates and mix things up a little without compromising the menu. If you’re not sure err on the side of caution, safe but well executed is almost always better than risky and hit and miss.
Chefs are confident in their creations, often verging on arrogant. Without wanting to sound too much like Viper in Top Gun, I like a little bit of that in a chef. What I don’t like is when they can’t live up to the expectations that arrogance conveys. Execution is perhaps the most crucial of these five areas, because without it the rest falls apart. A chef that adds that one ingredient too many, plates up a sauce on the verge of splitting or leaves finger marks around the plate isn’t quite there. Likewise, service staff that are a little vacant, slow or green can dampen an otherwise enjoyable dining experience. If this is a worry then restaurants should hold themselves back a bit, concentrate on doing things well rather than aiming too high and falling short – don’t promise something you can’t deliver. I find myself giving this very advice to many restaurants I speak to – chefs are competitive, want to push boundaries and show off their skills but many haven’t put in the hours of learning, training and tasting it takes to pull off what they are trying to do. For me execution is everything, I can forgive slight issues here and there with four areas above because sometimes they are subject to outside influence, but execution is almost entirely reliant on those that own and run the establishment and should be a key priority.
These are the five things that I always look for in a restaurant, do you agree, disagree? What are yours?