The quality of service, without it being in your face. The way a restaurant thinks about service is the first thing I notice about them. It’s important. Great service welcomes you in warmly, and gives you the space to breathe once you’re in their company. There is a great restaurant, not far from me, called La Riviera, where they make you feel like family: you’re a valued guest in their home. Several more words and their attention may be too cloying, but they never stray close enough to the line.
I have eaten in fantastic restaurants, gastronomically, where the service was suffocating. Places in which one is encouraged not to venture anywhere near one’s own bottle of water for fear of putting one of the myriad waiters out of a job. Great service, as seen in every superb Indian restaurant, needs bodies; but too many bodies robs the experience of the intimacy of dining. I want to be alone.
That said, I have also eaten in restaurants where the waiting staff were almost ghosts. The length of time it takes to get the bill, once requested, is a great indication of a restaurant’s attitude to its patrons. They’ll see you when you want food, but you’re invisible once it’s done. I do not return.
The attitude to children, not fawned over, but welcomed as people too. One of our former local favourite restaurants fell out of favour because they kept drooling over my daughter. This did not sit well with me. The rest of the family thought it was superb: “Look, they’ve bought her a doll!”. Great. Just fantastic. It’s often a battle getting my child to eat, so what she needs are distractions. Yeah.
My daughter tells the staff in this restaurant that she loves them – she also does this with the moon, but I can’t fit that in to my imaginary dungeon – and I find that uncomfortable. I’m not suggesting that they should give her a photocopied colouring in sheet and a pack of crayons, but a middle way is surely in order. It is so often the Mediterraneans who have the best attitudes in this regard.
A holiday in France, and a local Italian restaurant – the only place we were allowed to venture to without screams of anguish, and tuts of in-laws. The waitress made time for a chat, but scurried back off. There were no children’s menus, just smaller portions; there were no children’s activities, just a warm interaction. That’s what we needed, and that’s what we find so hard to actually experience.
The lack of opulence and ostentation. There is a restaurant across the river from us where the food and the service are both equally delightful, but where the décor is as gaudy as an explosion in a tinsel factory. The place is lit with blue neon, so it feels like the public toilets of a port town. It just detracts from the things they do well, and it gives me a headache. We only go there when forced.
I associate ostentatious opulence with trying to hide flaws in the restaurant setup. For instance, I was recently forced to eat in the most opulent gastropub south of the Tyne, and both the food and service were atrocious. In counterpoint, one of my favourite restaurants is L’Enclume, in Cartmel. It is calm, clean and understated. Its food and service are some of the very best in the world. The place is welcoming and relaxing from start to finish, yet they do not shout about it. That’s why I love it.
In the same way that icing sugar can be used to try and hide a ruined cake, sparkle and light can be used to try and hide a restaurant with an ill-conceived menu and poor service. It is a mere illusion, and so is fleeting; however, it is always cause for concern. For me and mine at the very least.
The quality of produce, simply handled. Back to La Riviera, in Cullercoats: It’s not just the superb service, the gentle way they treat children and the understated, logical décor that I rush back to; their produce is wonderful. Italian food is the easiest cuisine in the world: take the very best ingredients in the world, at their peak condition, and do as little as possible to them. It works.
Back to L’Enclume: I had never experienced a restaurant where their menu is dictated – at least in part – by the food they have available to them. Foraging in the Cumbrian countryside and growing their own are what the restaurant founds itself upon. And it shows. Everywhere else, you order the things you want and they are flown to you. That makes life too easy. Quality produce makes you think what you want to do with it; how to serve it well, so that you are eating that, and not some idea you’ve forced the world to commit to. Commit to your produce and all will be very well indeed.
Key lesson on this: salad garnish. If it is just an identikit array of leaves, some wilted, you’re in the wrong place. If the leaves are fresh, dressed and not alone, you may well have found somewhere.
The relaxed atmosphere, the ability to make yourself at home. There are two restaurants where I have eaten recently which exemplify this to me. Mamma Mia pizzeria in Oslo and In Pasta in Lucca. Both restaurants had a limited menu; both restaurants had subtle, understated décor; neither restaurant fawned over my child. I would run back to them both in a heartbeat. Let me explain why.
One simple thing: they both welcomed us in with a gentle warmth. They made us feel welcome, rather than trying too hard. It was honest. One unconventional thing: they both gave water away as a matter of course. Water should always be on offer. I have spent too many meals thirsty, because I knew I was going to be robbed for a simple glass of water. That’s not a relaxing atmosphere.
Too much is off-putting, but generosity is a wonderful thing. A portion of pasta must be generous, but it should not be a swimming pool. A freshly cooked pizza, bubbling dough, should be covered in toppings, but not collapsing under the weight of them. I can’t imagine either of these restaurants doing these things badly. They make me want to live there; they make me feel very happy indeed.