ROSS GOLDEN-BANNON has been a restaurant critic and food writer for the past 13 years. You can find more of his musings on rossgoldenbannon.com but here he serves up six of the irritations that his experiences have left him with.
1. The inverted budget triangle
In the last two years more and more once-off restaurants have opened and many reflect the ambitions of those who wish to own the ‘glamour’ of their own restaurant. Sadly, they also often reflect their complete lack of food knowledge.
When these born-again Celtic Cubs look at how they’ll invest their budget they more often than not start with the décor at the top and the food at the bottom. They decide that not only are they a talented restaurateur with great food knowledge, they’re also a qualified interior architect. They spend huge amounts of money on artifice forgetting that design is actually about function, so they exclude sound-proofing, people-flow areas and of course, school-boy error, not enough loos.
By the time they’ve finished sourcing and all that expensive pre-loved wood panelling from Louisiana and those jam jars from Barcelona, there’s hardly anything left in the budget for a proper menu consultant or indeed a good chef. But, hey, it looks good. Bling!
2. Friendliness is not the same as good service
We Irish have a deeply held disrespect for most people’s professions, believing, “sure, I could do that” about a wide range of activities from writing and painting to architecture and cheffing. The same goes for service in restaurants. For too long we have kidded ourselves that our friendliness is good service. It is not.
Good service means having systems in place so front-of-house runs as smoothly for the customer as it does for the staff. Service is the last thing restaurateurs invest in, yet their wait team are the people who are actually selling what the restaurateur has spent so money investing in the hope people will buy.
Would I buy a car from a sales person who says, ‘Yea, it’s nice, but I’ve never sat in it’? No.
3. Sorry, we don’t take any bookings, we’re too cool for that
Customers themselves are partly to blame for the epidemic of no-bookings policies. We book tables and don’t show up or arrive so late the table has been sitting empty for an hour. This seriously damages the revenue for the restaurant, especially at the weekend when many are making up for very quiet times earlier in the week.
However, restaurateurs have used the no-bookings sledgehammer to crack this nut. In response to a question I put out on Twitter about this issue several people said they just don’t visit restaurants without a booking policy. The policy excludes them, and others who travel long distances, as it makes it impossible to manage babysitters and their precious leisure time. It also excludes people on medication or with health issues who need to manage when they eat.
A hybrid system of a few tables set aside for bookings and others for walk-ins is easy to create and will work for the tardy and the punctual, as well as the organised and the spontaneous.
4. My invisibility cloak
It is remarkable how many restaurants simply ignore you when you walk in the door, especially when you hit a certain age. I didn’t know I owned an invisibility cloak until I started to lose my hair and added a few pounds around my waist. Sadly, my age-invisibility cloak makes me invisible to hipsters under thirty who are supposed to be welcoming me.
However, there is another factor here. Despite the fact that in a million years people wouldn’t ignore a friend standing at their front door, many a maitre d’ has developed an innate ability to completely block out the sound of a door opening or the presence of another human being in front of them. They busily continue to fold napkins or update their Facebook profile as if, well, you’re invisible.
Why do they do this? It’s because they’ve forgotten the vital link between that person standing in front of them and the wage packet at the end of the month.
5. Spoof words on the menu
Unlike our naïve friends in number one above, who think they know about food but are more interested in restaurant décor, there are a significant number of restaurateurs who understand food and food trends very well. This doesn’t mean they care about good sourcing or good food but they know all the key words to get you chomping at the bit. They are practitioners in the art of zeitgeist spin.
They sprinkle words like artisan, craft, farmhouse, handmade and seasonal across their menus so people think this is what they are getting. Sadly, there are no legal definitions for these words so anyone can use them as a sort of free seasoning on the menu. It doesn’t make crap food taste any better though.
6. The bill as an afterthought
It’s a little known fact that once people have ordered the bill they have psychologically left the restaurant, yet many restaurants delay getting the bill to you, delay picking up payment and then delay getting change and receipts back to you.
This should be one smooth system: if you have a bad experience here it’s the remaining memory of the evening.
And by the way, top tip to wait staff: if you want at least a 10% tip give me change which means I can leave 10% instead of having to ask you back to the table for a fifth time in this process, to break the notes. Unless of course I’m wearing my invisibility cloak and we don’t need to worry about tipping.
Ross Golden-Bannon is hosting an industry masterclass on service called ‘Would you like Profit with that?’ on Tuesday 13 May in The Marker Hotel in Dublin. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for further details.