Restaurants, in Australia, are our public spaces. We don’t have the plazas of southern Europe, we don’t use churches as they do in America, sure the beach is important but socially, the restaurant, especially in the city, is where we meet.
We go to them to seduce and propose, to seal deals and to carouse, for gatherings and celebrations of family and social importance. Eating, once their prime reason for being, is now only one part of the equation. The restaurant – and the café and increasingly the bar – is more than a place, it’s a tool: to borrow a phrase from Jesuit philosopher Ivan Illich, a tool for conviviality.
But here I’m giving you a guide to the restaurant, not the bar or the café – they have a different set of norms and rules of conduct. And not the cheap Chinese or Thai joint down the road, but a proper restaurant with comfortable tables and chairs and waitstaff who know what they’re doing.
I’ve been using restaurants since, as a boy in short trousers, I was taken by my mother as her ‘companion’ when she reviewed restaurants for Sydney’s Daily Mirror newspaper, a profession (restaurant reviewing) which, following in her footsteps, I have practiced at various times in various parts of the world.
What follows then, is advice from a second generation professional “restauranter” (not restaurateur, one who runs them, but restauranter, one who uses them) broken down, like a degustation menu, into 6 courses.
Leigh Prentice, architect and restaurant designer (Sydney’s Bennelong) told me how he approaches a restaurant design. He looks at the room, the chair, and the food. In that order. When he told me this I thought, come to think of it, that’s the way you enter a restaurant.
Walk in the front door. Stop. Stand still for a moment, and forget yourself. Put all that me-me-me stuff out of your head (How do I look? Does anybody here know me? Am I dressed right?) and let your antennae quiver. This first impression is very important.
A restaurant should fit you like a well cut jacket. It should be comfortable, and feel good to be in. There’s no point in going to the latest hot joint if it’s going to make you feel miserable.
The Greeks, of course, have a word for it: steki. A steki is a place you walk into, throw off your coat and your cares, flop down and say bring me food and drink.
Cast your eyes around the room. Are the waiters attending to the customers or walking through the room staring at the ceiling? Are customers looking agitated and waving their arms around for service, or are they sitting back in their chairs and enjoying themselves. You can tell much from close observation at the front door.
You’ve checked the room, and it feels right. Not too swish and not too swampy. Not too pricey but not too cheap. And everybody looks happy to be there.
How are you led to your table? If you had a booking did they remember it? Now, be seated
In the restaurant trade they have 20 minute chairs, 1 hour chairs and 2 hour chairs – measured by the amount of time before your bum numbs. If you plan on spending some time there, make sure it’s a two hourer
A few words about service. Because by now, seated comfortably four square on your two hour chair, you have already experienced some.
An encouraging style note: attitude is out. All those arseholes that made you feel like you were a delivery of bad fish dumped at the door have been told to change their ways. Or else.
Just in case you strike one who hasn’t yet got the message, remember the words of Lady Nancy Cunard (she didn’t just work for Cunard, she owned it): “Darling, she said, “nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent.” Right on Nancy. The jerk of a waiter who tries to make you feel like a jerk is – a jerk.
Australian service at its best – and it’s at its best in the finer restaurants in our capital cities – is, I am convinced, the best in the world: friendly without being familiar, courteous without being obsequious. At it’s worst, it’s the pits. If you find yourself in the pits, clamber out.
A word about bailing. If, at the outset, before you have ordered, you feel that something is just wrong – the chair, the service, the attitude – do not feel bad about leaving. Better that than sitting there fuming. You will not enjoy your experience.
The first thing to study is the right hand side of the menu. Can you afford it? Keeping in mind that the most expensive meal is a bad one – at any price.
A waiter once told me that diners should remember that his profession is not a well paid one, and that, as they too like to dine out, they sympathise with anyone else on a budget. If you find the dollars too daunting, suggest a budget to your waiter. You’ll probably find him or her only too happy to devise a way for you to stick to it. I recently discussed this with my youngest daughter who, like many, is financing her studies in hospitality. She told me of a group who asked for the cheapest wine on the menu. She was delighted to advise them and tell them it was damn good.
On the other hand, if expense is no object, remember the greatest pleasure for the diner – and the greatest compliment for a good restaurant team of chef and sommelier – is to say “please bring food and wine.”
Take notice of what you are eating – not to the exclusion of conversation or ostentatiously. As a reviewer I take only factual notes, relying on my memory – and the menu – to remind me of what was significant about the meal.
If anything puzzles you, ask questions. If anything is not up to your expectations, learn the art of complaining gracefully. A good restaurant will take a gracious complaint into account. A good restaurant has waiters who know what each dish is and are only too happy to explain it to you.
If there was something wrong, tell them, politely, there and then, rather than write a letter. Often you will find the problem can be ironed out immediately.
If the meal and service were above average, tip. In cash (chances are the staff won’t see the tip added to a credit card). Around 10%. For three main reasons. First, if you do return (see next course) you will be remembered well. Secondly, rightly or wrongly, many waiters need their tips to survive. Thirdly, to show your appreciation – like clapping.
And do check the bill: mistakes can be made.
There are many reasons to go back often to a restaurant you like.
You will be remembered and treated well. You will begin to be invited to that restaurant’s special events; wine and food nights, birthday parties etc. You will get the best tables – you don’t like Siberia.
You might even strike up long-lasting friendships with people who cook very well. This is not a bad thing.
I’m not saying you should always go to the same restaurants – or restaurants. By all means check out the new. But at the end of a year or two of this process, you should have a little collection that you can use for various purposes. As The New York Times critic Frank Bruni recently wrote: ‘What you have with a restaurant that you visit once or twice is a transaction. What you have with a restaurant that you visit over and over is a relationship. As with all relationships, you will want to choose a compatible partner.
And, as an experienced restauranter, you will have chosen well.