Tuesday, 26 February 2008
Top 10 Things I Hate About London Restaurants
I don't often do these things, but I have a nasty cold and am feeling generally hostile towards the world, so I hereby present my top ten London restaurant annoyances. Feel free to add any of your own in the comments section.
10. Being made to feel guilty for ordering tap water.
It doesn't make me some sort of shameful cheapskate if I object to paying £3 a litre for a substance that falls out of the sky for free. Please, offer me tap water without me having to ask for it, and better still (well done Tayyabs) just leave a jug of it on the table so I can help myself. And speaking of helping myself:
9. Italian restaurants and black pepper.
Perhaps once, back in the mists of time, it was considered classy to have the waiter take 20 minutes grinding black pepper over every dish on a table of 15, but these days it's just irritating. Is there something more inherently precious about pepper that we aren't deemed worthy enough to use it ourselves on our own meals, and yet are given free reign with the salt? Leave the damn pepperpot on the table, Luigi, and leave me alone, thanks very much.
8. Italian restaurants
The fact that I've never had a decent Italian meal in London is only part of the reason for my aversion. What I really object to is being charged £12 for a plate of bought-in pasta and tinned tomatoes which must have cost no more than 20p in ingredients. Steaks in Italian restaurants in London are always rubbish too. And no, I've not been to Locanda Locatelli or the River Cafe but I have seen their menus, and all I can say is if I'm paying £30 for a single plate of pork loin, I hope they have good enough binoculars to see me coming.
7. 15% service charges
Listen, it's a simple rule. The accepted service charge in this country is 12.5%. Anywhere charging 15% might as well just have "RIPOFF" written in leftover beetroot purée on the front step. I don't care if you perform the Heimlich manoeuvre on me after a piece of guinea fowl gets lodged in my gullet, or if you're trained in midwifery because the vindaloo occasionally induces labour. It's 12.5% and I'll only give you any more if I think you deserve it.
6. Cover charges
The Wolseley is a perfectly good restaurant serving perfectly good food. The reason I will never go (at least not if I'm paying) is because they charge £2 for the privilege of walking through their front door and sitting down. I have no idea where this disgraceful practice started (perhaps they had a large number of diners scoffing free bread and tapwater then getting up and leaving, though I very much doubt it) but it has to stop now.
5. Posh Indian restaurants
There's been a rather worrying trend in London over the last few years to attempt to "posh up" what I will loosely call "Indian" dining, perhaps down to the mistaken belief that people in Mayfair won't eat tandoori chicken unless it comes served under a silver dome and with a winelist like a telephone directory. All of them - Benares, Tamarind, Amaya, the lot - are rubbish. I'm sorry to start sounding like their PR agent, but if Tayyabs can serve the best seekh kebabs in London at 80p a pop, there's no excuse for anyone else charging any more.
4. Dishonest menu descriptions
How often have you ordered a dish billed as something like 'Chicken breast with truffle and cauliflower purée', only for said dish to arrive with a huge lump of chicken, a truckload of green salad and a miniscule pinprick of white sauce you can only assume is the purée because it's almost too small to see, let alone taste? This is even more common in mid-range restaurants who attempt to push the boat out with premium ingredients but can't make the numbers work without making one truffle go between 500 plates of food.
3. Supplements on courses
Hibiscus is a fine-dining restaurant, and by all accounts a very good one at that, so they are quite within their rights to charge £60 for a three-course meal. But when is a prix-fixe menu not a prix-fixe menu? When a full 30% of the dishes carry a hefty supplement, that's when - langoustine ravioli is £7.50 extra, and the signature sausage roll a full £12.50 more. Fresh white truffles or Oscieta caviar I can understand paying extra for, but not just a bit of pork. Not only is this practice downright misleading, but if you're going to take into account the relative cost of each dish's ingredients and preparation, then just be honest and call it À la carte. And don't even get me started on cheese course pricing....
2. Restaurants that cram them in
I know that every good restaurateur needs to keep his or her eye on the bottom line, but some of the tables I've had to put up with just take the Michael. The places with the bench seating are the worst, Wagamamas seemingly of the opinion that the more you hear of your fellow diner's loft extension or cataract operation the better. But higher-end places aren't exempt from cynical seating either - here's another tip for restaurants: if the waiter has to move the entire table every time punters need a toilet break, you may want to rethink your seating plan.
1. Other people
Whether it's expense account suits in The Square leaving plate after plate of the most exquisite food in London untouched, or braying hordes of Chelsea Sloanes barracking relentlessly polite Polish waiting staff in a Kings Road brasserie, there's nothing more potentially damaging to your faith in the human race than eating out in London. If you think that sounds overly misanthropic, next time you go out for a meal take a moment to observe the other diners in the room. I guarantee that the vast majority will be either loud, obnoxious, ignorant, disrespectful or a violent cocktail of all of the above. If I was Michael Winner I'd just book a private room whenever I went for dinner out, but then again, if I was Michael Winner, I'd be trapped in a room with exactly the kind of person I'd be paying to avoid.
(Photo courtesy of Cinema Retro)