I think restaurants and gastro-pubs everywhere need to pause and rethink what they are presently offering to customers. I eat out a fair bit, at least twice a week, and I'm definitely noticing a trend away from giving good value. Either you pay an awful lot, or get small portions, or both. I will exempt Indian, Chinese and Italian restaurants from this general complaint: thank goodness, you can still get a full tummy for a very reasonable amount at such eateries, unless they have pretentions. I'm mainly talking about the kind of place found in the centre of Brighton, but also in other trendy spots, that aim to impress you with their ambience. All over the country. I noticed quite a few of them last summer in Newcastle, on the north bank of the Tyne, near the Sage and the Baltic.
Last night at the Côte Brasserie in Brighton, for instance. An upmarket exterior; staff everywhere, buzzing to and fro; comprehensive menus, catering for various needs (one of our party needed gluten-free food: there was a special menu ready for her); generally a classy experience.
We had an £80 voucher to spend (Côte had cancelled a pre-Christmas booking at the last moment - a kitchen problem - and the voucher was recompense) but nobody went mad on what they ordered. Each had a starter, a main, and either a dessert or a coffee. I myself had a smoked salmon starter, a lamb shank main, and a black coffee instead of a dessert, accompanied by one large glass of house white wine, and some water. I drank less wine than three of the others - who shared two bottles of house red - but otherwise my food and drink selection wasn't very different in cost or quantity from what the others ordered. How much then? There were five of us, and the bill (before deducting that £80) came to £196, with a 12.5% service charge automatically included. £39 each. That wasn't a cheap meal.
Here's a shot of my smoked salmon starter, with capers, on a medium-sized plate.
Eaten with a small amount of toast, it was very nice, but scarcely a tummy-tightener.
This was my main. A diddy lamb shank on some mashed potatoes with mustard in it, and a pleasant jus. No green vegetables - those would have been extra, and I overlooked ordering any.
It was very good; cooked just right; but there wasn't a lot of it.
Add in one glass of white wine (nothing extra special), a tumbler or two of tap water out of a china bottle, and an ordinary Americano coffee.
Was it all really worth almost £40? I don't think so.
I'm not singling out Côte as an arch perpetrator of poor value. As a social occasion, it was great. The service was friendly and attentive, if a little too inclined to suggest we bought more drinks. But I do say that I expected more to eat for the cash.
Earlier that day, at lunchtime, I was at village friend Jo's, and she had whipped up a spicy soup...
...and a vegetable quiche with new potatoes, pasta, and a salad to follow...
...accompanied by somewhat more than one glass of white wine (I provided the bottle), water, and a nice cup of tea. Oh, I forgot the yummy yoghurt, summer fruits and blueberry dessert (I could have had a that on a meringue nest, but I turned the nest down, wanting to be as Slimming-World compliant as possible).
The bottle of wine cost me £7.95, and I drank £3-worth of it, another bottle coming into play. (There were four of us: Jo, Jackie, myself, and Jo's husband Clive, who joined us from a morning's golf) And that was an attractive, satisfying meal, which Jo described as 'light' but was actually rather filling and threatened my appetite for feasting at Côte later the same day. What might it have cost overall? Let's say £15 for the foodstuffs consumed, plus another £15 for the two bottles of wine we opened: £30 for the four of us. £7 a head, give or take a bit.
My point is, what you cook up at home, and what it costs, is a world away from what you get at a restaurant in town, and what that costs. It was of course always thus, but recently I think the difference has become more marked. Nowadays, eating out at gastro-pubs and brasseries, let alone places with more stellar reputations, seems to involve real pain in the purse department. Pain not mollified by enjoying a meal to remember.
What has gone wrong? I suspect that over the last ten years popular TV cookery programmes like Masterchef, and the way a bunch of celebrity chefs have become household names, have all created an aspiration for 'fine dining', and a public liking for places to eat that offer a special experience. It's been goodbye to traditional pub grub, hello to new twists on old recipes, quirky menus, and fussy service - anything to make the food on the plate look 'different' and full of 'added value'. But whether you get adequate nutrition for the money is another matter. Attempts at finesse and refinement generally mean not much on the plate. Personally, I wouldn't mind if the food were tipped onto the plate anyhow, so long as it was tasty, and I had enough to eat. I don't greatly care about artistic presentation. It's nice, but hardly essential. I'm certainly not impressed if a tiny pot of jus is dribbled for me over a single shaped carrot, or speck of meat, as the chef's signature flourish.
I mean, look at this chock-full plate of food I cooked up at home recently, just for myself one evening.
No art here. Just a neat arrangement on the plate. But these meals were delicious, filling, and - gravy and mint sauce excepted - Slimming-World compliant too. The ingredients were good-quality (mostly from Waitrose, or a local butcher) but didn't really cost all that much.
Why can't I get hearty meals like this at places like Côte? I appreciate that I must pay a premium for their doing the cooking, and I clearly understand that they need to cover their overheads and make a decent profit. But I still want a well-covered plate for my money!
A vain hope. All that attentive, friendly, service comes at a price. And a whole generation of young chefs have been taken on, and expect to be paid well. So to cover these staff costs, you get less food, and pay through the nose for it. And in many places it feels like a rip-off.
I still think that a wonderful meal out is one of life's great pleasures. But I think the experience is getting rarer. Either the meal has been big on theatre but small on hunger-satisfying potential, or the cost has been so much that after paying I've wanted to forget it all, as if it had been a rash and embarrassing mistake that I'd rather not admit to. Especially when I can prepare a fabulous meal for myself for so much less cash.
I hear that many restaurants are getting worried about profitability in the year ahead. Customers have been led to expect more, but are feeling the pinch and are looking for ways to eat out for less. Or indeed eat in. Some restaurants are bound to go under. It won't be enough to pile on peripheral things like a posher ambience. People want, above all, delicious food and plenty of it.
So I say: less pretension, please, and better value. Or we will all stay away.