Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Rapha: The Cafe for the 2012 Mid-Life Crisis

Once upon a time, men having a mid-life crisis would buy penis extensions - sports cars and motorbikes, firing up the A1 wearing a leather jacket, listening to 'Born to be Wild' and cursing the fact they didn't get to shag more girls in their twenties.

Now however, things are different. What with it being the 21st century and all, with middle aged men routinely doing such things as changing nappies, cooking at home and using moisturiser, they buy bicycles.

Not just any bicycles though, bikes made of such things as carbon fibre that cost more than their child's university fees. These are the new (lightweight) penis extensions of 2012. Stiffness is paramount apparently, as is lots of gears for smooth transmission of power (good in an older man), and hardness (even better) in the tyres. 

To ride on these bikes, they need special 'kit' of course, made of very expensive merino wool (presumably the bits leftover from what China doesn't want) and 'technical fibres' (?) which carefully blend dour hi-tech seriousness with romantic retro nostalgia. It's the ageing intellectual hipster version of wearing a 1966 England shirt. Think grainy black and white pictures of grizzling old farts riding their bicycles up mountains. Fifty something AA Gill weekend wear.  

Now, in order to buy this they need a brand. No good popping down to Sports Direct and buying some chavvy Adidas kit. No no no, these guys are more used to shopping in Paul Smith. What they need is a brand finely tuned to their refined tastes, something that hides their insecurities and presents them as the taste conscious sexy active man they spent years trying to convince their wives they were before she gave up being sexy herself and started wearing flat shoes. 

Thankfully they have a brand. This brand is Rapha.

Rapha this year opened a little shop in Brewer Street, stocking all the gear a neo-metrosexual, badger-greying, sensitive new old-man bicycling boy could want. Scented bum cream, man-bags, little hats that look like their old public school caps, the lot. And as is the fashion nowadays, they have put in a little cafe. I mean, who can go more than two minutes these days without needing to stop for an artisan coffee?

So, on reading a few blogs and tweets (such as Faerietale Foodie's post and The Perfect Trough's post), and being not far from the apex of SWOHO ('South-west Soho' - yes, I've heard it referred to as that) Quadrant 3, where of course I do all my shopping in Wholefoods with the sprightly Californians buying colon-cleaning kits,  I decided to pop in and see what it was all about.

Well, the staff are very friendly, the owners seem to have read the current 'how to open an urban artisan cafe' (don't worry, my post is coming) checklist, plenty of wacky, carefree girls and gentle beardy menfolk who are keen to help. I asked what was good and had a beef brioche bun thing, which sounded great but turned out to be a brioche (what else?) bun alright, with a tiny smear of some kind of beef stew inside it. It was suggested to be served with ketchup, (which I think may have been Wilkin & Sons, which everyone knows tastes like Heinz that's been left out all night). I was glad of the posh ketchup, as once I'd finished the measly smear of beef gravy I needed something to moisten the bread. A cup of tea helped (I nearly nicked the cool cup and saucer, and at £2.50 I wouldn't have felt guilty). I probably ordered the wrong thing and everyone will tell me I should have had the nice looking focaccia type sandwiches or the 'dunking biscuit' instead, but I was going on recommendation by the staff! 

They are obviously very serious about coffee (as everyone seems to be these days, Australian accent or not) and offer only espresso which for the 'special' at £3 for a single shot is quite a lot in my opinion. I mean, it's only a few coffee beans, isn't it? How expensive are they? And studying the menu, a double is £3.50 (not £6? I don't get that, are we saying it costs £3 to construct it?) and milk is a further 50p, making a cup of coffee potentially £4.

Anyway it's so bourgeois to be moaning about the price. Pah! You can't put a price on quality, integrity, design, location etc right? And no-one who comes into Rapha gives a shit about prices, especially when you've just spent £200 on some paunch-reducing lycra cycling shorts and titanium hair-loss cream.

Food tastiness & value for money 4/10
Coffee seriousness 9/10
Staff quirkiness 8/10
AA Gill's Christmas stocking suitability 9/10
85 Brewer Street, London W1F 9ZN020 7494 9831

Rapha Cycle Club on Urbanspoon

Monday, 17 December 2012

The Horror of Being the Only Foodie at Christmas

I received an invitation for a pop-up dinner on 25 December in my home town. It's lucky because I was going home anyway.

The setting is witty take on the 1970's home counties suburban dining room. It's Abigail's Party meets Terry & June. I flick a wry smile at my fellow diner, who looks a bit like my great aunt.

A 1960s Heals sideboard produces matched sets of woven reed table mats and individual coasters.

After declaring 'it's SO nice to get out of London', I realise that when I boast about getting a table at John Salt within a week of it opening, nobody knows or cares what I'm talking about (you understand what I'm dealing with now). So I quickly throw in some celebrities' names to impress.

I'm offered an aperitif by the sommelier, who strangely, appears to be my own father. The Osborne Sherry is brought out, or even worse, Bristol Cream. Sorry, where's the Amontillado? That barrel-aged vintage sherry I had at Pizzaro with mountains of Iberico ham last week? And more importantly, where are the Negronis?!

Then they wheel out the Buck's Fizz. Made with Sainsbury's Cava and smooth orange juice, from a carton. Don't they know I only drink grower Champagne now?

I've been standing around for half an hour and there are some sad looking Crespo olives in a bowl. Is that it? I ask the waitress, sorry, my mum, where the canapes are. My mum looks confused and hastily puts some KP salted peanuts in the bowl - where is the chilli popcorn, the crostinis, the sushi?

We're called to the kitchen. By voice, how vulgar. Where's the bell to call us!? The table layout is a 5/10 at most. The wine glasses have stems, there is no cucumber in the table water, there is no smoked Maldon salt on a minature slate (luckily I brought my pocket sized Maldon, which you can get from the US here).

The table is a fully stretched out draw-leaf mahogany number, it's convivial dining. Very now. Places are laid, I notice Queens pattern cutlery and silver napkin rings. I squeal with delight at the nod to the past 'Just like Hoxton!' I imagine.

Confusingly, the chairs are a matched set of reproduction Sheraton revival . Another ironic red herring I presume..

A Spode Italian sauceboat sits on the table. I can only assume that it will contain some sort of jus.

My mum asks me to stir the gravy. I reckon that'll be huge in 2013, being allowed to help out in the kitchen. It's one step on from the chef's table. Hang on, gravy?! Where's the jus, reduction, glaze?

She brings out the steaming platter of sprouts. And god, they're actually steamed. Not even served with lardo or chorizo.

Speaking of ingredients, where are the truffles in this affair? Not even any truffle oil? Upon asking for truffles, my mother looks troubled and brings out the Lindt (they were supposed to be for after pudding, she stresses).

The cranberry sauce isn't even from Fortnum's - and served straight out of a (not Kilner) jar. On a saucer with a *shudder* doily underneath.

The sous, I mean my dad, after much nagging from the head chef, I mean my mum (no arguments in the open-plan kitchen, please), carves the turkey. On closer inspection, it's not free-range, organic or from my local butcher. They might have got it from a *whisper* supermarket.

The stuffing is pretty basic. The mouth-feel hasn't got anywhere near enough fracturability. I think it's bought. Fuck's sake.

Christmas pudding is ok. Unimaginative serving, and it doesn't appear to be deconstructed in any way. It's taken the pastry chef, I mean my dad, five minutes to light the bloody brandy it's drowned in at the table. You wouldn't get this at Bubbledogs.

Afterwards, I ask to see the list of seasonal teas. 'It's Tetley's or nothing, love', says the waitress. I mean, mum. I take hot water and lemon. Probably safer.

I wait at the piano expectantly. There's probably some kind of after-dinner entertainment.

To my surprise, the rest of the staff, I mean, family, retire to the living room to fall asleep in front of the TV.

I sigh, and listen to Nigel Slater's latest podcast, alone.


Monday, 10 December 2012

Dos and Don'ts of Ordering Wine

Working as a waitress and going to restaurants, I see both sides of the wine-ordering process. It's tough. Unless you actually know about wine, a list of names doesn't really mean a lot to you so it can be embarrassing. I get that feeling from a lot of people who come into the restaurant I work in. They don't really know a lot so they just sort of blag it, but they just end up looking like knobs. This is a list of things to do and what you definitely shouldn't do when ordering wine!

Image from
On initial viewing of the wine list, don't get your mate to hand the wine list to you and say 'Dave, you choose. You're the wine expert.'. Just because you watched Sideways, you are not a wine expert. Expect the waitress to roll her eyes. A lot.

Don't peruse the list for at least ten minutes, not even pausing to look at the food menu, and you don't need to assert your extensive knowledge of wine by asking the waiter overly niche questions about wine that he probably won't know. There's no need - it just embarrasses all parties and makes you look like a tit.

Don't just choose the second- or third-cheapest bottle of wine, because asking for the house wine is just too cheap. If you want to ask for the house wine, ask for the house wine. A good waiter won't sneer at your choices. 

Don't pretend your eyes aren't sliding to the right hand side of the wine list. It's obvious you're looking at the price and not the wine.

Do give the waiter/sommelier your budget when you ask them to recommend a wine to you.  They won't ask for it otherwise. 

Don't assume sophistication is synonymous with the longest name. And don't try and impress your mates by trying (and possibly failing) to pronounce it in an over-the-top European accent.

Don't pick a word halfway down the wine list and say that instead of what the wine is actually called. For instance, I'll go for the Laungedoc' or 'We'll try the French one, please'. The waitress will only have to say, 'Which French one, Sir?' through gritted teeth. Stop being filled with middle-class embarrassment and order the bloody Chardonnay if you want it. It's not 1999.

You don't need to squint at the tasting notes for a good minute whilst the waiter presents the bottle. When tasting, don't give it a good swill round, sniff and gargle with it, then consider it and wrinkle your nose. You look like a dick.

Instead, do just give it a sniff. You don't need to do all that stuff to tell if it's corked or oxidised. If you don't like the wine, that's your problem. You ordered it. Just make sure you know what you're doing in this instance - if you give it a cursory sniff and say it's ok when it's not, you're stuck drinking the whole bottle of wine. They gave you the opportunity to send it back and now it's yours.

Don't pass it to your mate for a second opinion. If you don't know what you're talking about, why the hell did you order and offer to taste the wine?

Don't address your friends when expressing how pleased you are that you lucked out and chose a nice wine. It's rude.When the waitress comes round to pouring yours, don't mutter 'keep going' if she stops short of what you wanted. It makes you look greedy and it makes her feel silly. Just drink some and top it up when she's not looking.

Do end all stories with '… and we were all very, very drunk', in the style of Rowley Birkin QC. Because it's funny.

Friday, 7 December 2012

J Sheekey Review

I was reading Restaurant Magazine the other day and came across an article on cookbooks. The publishers are churning them out in time for Christmas and quite frankly, I'm a teeny bit bored of them. How many times do I have to read 'My grandmother's secret recipe...'? I'm sure she's a wonderful cook but isn't everyone's grandmother?

What it does point out is you need a USP. Correct. They're all the same. The current fashion is simple subjects, redefined.  But how many more opinions on fish/meat/baking etc can there be?

Cookbooks these days fall into three camps:

Romantic, rustic and full of background
Egotistical chefs' masturbation manuals
Design-led coffee table lifestyle ornaments.

Great of course that the Watersones book of 2012 was Polpo, but sad really that it won because of the spine design, praising its tactility and reliance to the threat of digital downloads. None of the judges actually mentioned the recipes inside.

I think what we need is something different, something that's not been done before. When was the last time you bought a cookbook and actually really used it?

The books listed in this article were Nathan Outlaw (another book about fish), The Square, Faviken (described as a coffee book table - says it all. It looks beautiful though), Space Trip and J Sheekey. J Sheekey won't win any awards for originality - it's a classic fish restaurant that's put out a cookbook about classic fish cooking. But it reminded me, and that's what a restaurant cookbook's partly about. That's why I decided to go there yesterday.

I had a great time and I think one of the reasons was is that it's been around for such a long time, no-one's trying to be cool or innovative. It's old-school, traditional and it's been there for yonks. And looking around, it's full of first dates and senior citizens. There was a ridiculously posh table nearby which we observed with glee as they got more sloshed.


Things I liked:
  • The oysters and their gorgeous, tangy shallot vinegar (£14.25 for 6). I could eat hundreds of them but I won't because then they wouldn't be special (and I'm not a millionaire). There was some nice rye bread served with it. I wasn't really sure when I was supposed to eat it so I used it as a kind of palate cleanser.
  • Their shrimp and scallop burger. Ordered purely for how-does-that-work factor. It was delicious and it was a bit different. Couldn't finish it because it was quite rich. But I would eat that again.
  • They overheard it was my friend's birthday and piped 'happy birthday' on her dessert plate. It was a nice touch.
  • The Spotted Dick (snigger). It was great comfort food. I'm a big fan of steamed puddings. Can someone bring them back, please?
  • When they said that they hoped to see me for my next birthday, I felt like they really meant it (it's nice to feel that they're not just going through the motions).
  • Gravlax. It's cured salmon, but it was great nonetheless.
Scallop & Shrimp Burger

Things I didn't like:
  • Initial shambles at reception. They've been doing this for years - haven't they got a better system?
  • Squid was chewy and it didn't taste of much except the charred pepper (a pet hate of mine) so I had to slather on quite a lot of the sauce. I know squid is often chewy, but I expected better from a fish restaurant.
  • The iced berries. I mean, it was nice, and the chocolate sauce was lovely, but it reminded me of the frozen mixed berries my mum used to get from Iceland to put into a crumble. Not a dessert.
  • As the room filled up (and we drank more wine), the room got warmer, but initially, the room  was chilly.
J Sheekey
28-35 St Martin's Court  London WC2N 4AL
020 7240 2565

J Sheekey on Urbanspoon Square Meal

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Top Ten Cult Movie Food Scenes

This may have been done before, I know, but I love films and wanted to make a connection between films and cooking without the obvious choices.

There are of course the old classics that everyone will bring up. Big Night, Delicatessen, Chocolat etc, but they are more about food, and with the exception of Ratatouille, I think my list is hopefully more interesting because the films have different subjects. So here is my list of top ten Cult Movie Food Scenes.

10. Sexy Beast - Calamari
A tricky toss-up between this and the incredibly intense breakfast at the 'Grosvenor' with Ian McShane. Two sun-dried retired expat crooks and their wives meet in a southern Spain restaurant. The atmosphere is fraught. A mysterious phone call has been taken. Don Logan, the most feared, psychotic London villain they've ever met (played by Ben Kingsley) has summoned Gal (Ray Winstone) to do that one last job. And he's coming to ask him in person.
"I'm gonna 'ave the calamari" Says Gal. Nervous doesn't even come close (No YouTube embed available for this one).

9. Ratatouille - Goats' cheese & mushroom smoked on the chimney
OK, so this film is about cooking, but it's so stunningly well done I couldn't possibly leave it out. There are too many scenes to mention, but the best for me is the slow cooking of the goat's cheese with the mushroom, using the chimney for smokey heat. The way they visually describe the combinations of flavours using fireworks - Fabulous.

8. Blues Brothers - Dry White Toast, Four Fried Chickens & a Coke
Is there a cooler duo in the history of cinema? Er, no, basically. When Dan Ackroyd and John Belushi are on their 'Mission from God' their diner order of 'four fried chickens and a coke, and some dry white toast' is recognised instantly by long-lost band member Murphy. Queue Aretha Franklin's super on-screen performance of 'Respect'. Great stuff.

7. Twin Peaks - Coffee & Cherry Pie 
Technically a TV series, this ultra-weird David Lynch spooky dreamy whodunitt-athon featured Kyle Maclachan almost every single episode ordering coffee and cherry pie in the local diner as he picked his way throughout possibly the strangest and longest murder mystery ever to be put on film. 'Damn good coffee.'

6. Lady & the Tramp - Spaghetti 
The most romantic food scene ever made in my opinion. How can you GET more romantic than a back street behind a trattoria, with the owner making you a little table, gingham cloth, breadsticks, candlelight, eating spaghetti from the same plate, and finding yourselves eating the same piece, your faces slowly brought together? 10/10.

5. Ripley's Game - Truffle Pasta
More Ray Winstone, sorry. He's one of my favourite actors, maybe a little typecast, but which great actor isn't?
Here, he plays yet another thug, and in this scene he awaits a meeting in a Northern Italian restaurant, where a waiter shaves fresh truffle onto his pasta. The waiter stops, and Winstone continues to greedily and aggressively demand more and more, while we get more and more toe-curlingly uncomfortable. A great movie. Other great food scenes include the flicking of the egg yolk on John Malcovich's sofa.

4. Spinal Tap - Dressing Room
The legendary 1980s Heavy Metal spoof hilariously nails almost every cliché known to Rock, but the dressing room canapé scene delightfully mocks precious prima donnas brilliantly. The folding of the ham, the mini breads, the olives (some stuffed, some not), and the enthusiasm for tinned tuna - 'no bones!'. Brilliant stuff.

3. Goodfellas - Prison Scene
Was a difficult one, as Goodfellas also features such other classics as the dinner at Joe Pesci's Mother's house, and also the great paranoid 'stirring the sauce' Ray Liotta scene. But for me it is when all the mob are in prison, and their passion for cooking, technique and ingredients is hilariously brought to the fore. I particularly enjoy the slicing of the garlic with a razor blade.

2. Pulp Fiction - Big Kahuna Burger
Again, quite easily could have gone for John Travolta and the Five Dollar Shake, or the 'Royale with Cheese' car conversation, but this does it for me.
'Hamburgers! The cornerstone of any nutritious breakfast' - Samuel L Jackson quite possibly unwittingly sowed the seed for the current new-found fascination with burgers back in 1994 when he demanded some of his victim's 'Big Kahuna Burger' breakfast. I'd like to know if anyone can claim to eating a burger in the last 15 years without at least once saying 'Um-hmmm! This IS a tasty burger!'

1. Withnail & I - Sunday Lunch
The roast chicken on a brick (eat your heart out Hix and the rest of the current chef ponces) the day before should really steal this, but for pure joy, the simple pleasure of sunday roast with the hilarious, gradually increasing sexual innuendo of Uncle Monty, and the likewise increasing fear of Paul McGann as they prepare and eat lunch, this scene has to be No. 1.

Monday, 3 December 2012

Food Trend Clock

If you're a trendy restaurant/pub/bar and you're unsure of what to put on the menu next month, just use my handy clock to ensure that you don't leave any trends out!

Friday, 30 November 2012

How to go Down the Pub

Continuing with my series of 'How-to Guides' which state the obvious, here is my latest.

Going down the pub is not as simple as you think. You may have been to a Swiss finishing school before and not have been to a proper English pub or you may be unfamiliar with what the right thing to do is. You may unwittingly piss off the bartender, fail to pull or most importantly, look like a tit. Many years of evolving pub behaviour has resulted in a secret unwritten etiquette which for the first time I am attempting to define and publish to the world. 

Pippa Middleton, move over. You're welcome.

Jack Beard's, EC1

Types of pub

Firstly, you need to define which type of pub you are going to. There are lots of types of pub, and admittedly this is London biased, as my knowledge of suburban neo-Tudor family hang-outs (the kind that have car-parks) is minimal and yeah yeah pubs up North are great etc I know, I know *face slips off palm*. 

Moody estate pubs. St Georges flag in the window. Fighting dogs outside. My dad used to say 'Never drink in a pub with a flat roof', but make one of these your local and never worry about where to by knocked-off Hackett gear ever again.

Wetherspoons type chain. Town centre nightclub haunts of chavvy groups and Also used by old men in daytimes/weekends, who go there for the ridiculously cheap mild beer.

SW London chainish Gastropub. Probably owned by Rupert Cleverly. Farrow & Ball mushroom coloured walls, coir matting floor, chesterfield sofas, nostalgic novels, hunting prints,  expensive hearty food menu.

Trendy local. Hackney/Shoreditch An old corner pub 'saved' by nice chaps with names like Ben who aim to 'keep the heart & should of the pub' by hanging taxidermy on the walls and hoping the old white Reebok wearing locals disappear. Frequented by local creative workers (weekdays) and paunched marrieds on Sunday lunches. Probably lots of craft beer.

Work local. Best examples found in Soho/Fitzrovia/The City. These are my favourite. Hopefully still owned by independent landlords, not infected by trends yet. Very busy weekday evenings, dead at weekends. 

Types of visit

Who do you go with? Ever get that awful feeling of dread when you don't know if people will be there and you have to wander round like an idiot searching for people? 

Going alone. Men: Highly encouraged. The top ranking pub-goer is the solo male drinker, he who can hold his own at the bar, without feeling like a loner loser. He knows a few of the regulars and staff, he doesn't need to arrange with friends to go. Guys, If you can go down the pub on your own, you've made it in one of the main bloke tests of life.

Women. Highly encouraged if you charge £1000 an hour and the 'pub' happens to be the bar at Novikov, highly discouraged if not. We've all seen them, middle-aged, sitting at the bar with cheap jewellery adorning day-after-party-balloon cleavage, clothes for girls half their age, half-cut, eyeing up teenagers. Acceptable if you're waiting for someone.

Going in groups. Guaranteed to annoy the hell out of the rest of the pub, and the landlord, but tolerated because of the hefty bar bill of extra bottles of Chardonnay and the round of 15 shots that only half of the table drink. We've all seen the 'reserved for Wayne from Fatknot Recruiting' card on the table in the corner, and witnesses as the hoard of chubby, Headmasters hairstyled and high-heeled admin assistants and their Ted Baker mauve/purple shirt & tie combo colleagues strut in and try to out do each other on the Jaegerbombs.

Sitting down or standing

Men. Sitting down is not really allowed, unless on a first date, or in a meeting (with a female colleague/client). 

Women. sitting down only allowed when in groups of girls, or on a date.


Girls. Hang around the bar. Under no circumstances sit down at a table. Someone will chat/smile/offer you a drink in approximately 5-10 mins. Select nicest one.

Guys. Apply the simple 'talk to everyone' rule. Buy lots of drinks. Rule of averages states someone will be drunk enough to fancy you in the end.


It's important to know what is acceptable to drink in a pub. You don't want your mates to laugh at you or to seem unattractive to the opposite sex.

Cocktails. You're standing three deep at the bar waiting for the already overworked bar staff to keep everyone's orders flowing, and what happens, some twat decides it would be a good idea to order four different cocktails.  Cheers for that. The barman relishes the chance to roll up his sleeves and demonstrate his obvious destiny as eclectic mixologist, his ironic tattoos and Edwardian hipster braces leaping into action. Meanwhile, the rest of the waiting customers groan and make 'WTF it'll be another hour' signs to their mates. Unless your name is Derek Trotter, cocktails are only to be ordered by girls, and only then when the bar is relatively empty.  Chances are any cocktail you get in a pub will be shit anyway.

Pints. Unless you're an aspiring lad-ette, pints are for men. Order by 'pint of lager' only, as choosing between different fizzy corporate continental lagers renders you a precious twat as they all taste the same anyway.
Unless of course you've bought into the craft beer thing, which generally means you get something that tastes of something but costs loads. Ale, of course, is for really manly men.

Wine. For groups of girls, or university lecturers trying to seduce their students. Pubs generally know nothing about wine, but make massive mark-ups so don't expect anything decent.

Spirits. Go for the classics. G&T, Vodka & Soda etc. Never drink Coke with anything.
Whisky - neat, Scotch. Single malt if you're flush. Never any ice or water/mixer of any kind. Under no circumstances order bourbon unless you are in an American themed bar and you're drinking boilermakers (beer & bourbon chasers) or you're a Slash fan.

Shots. Shots are to be encouraged. I'm a great believer in shots very early on, even with the first round. 
For maximum pub points, have them at the bar, on your own, waiting for your mates' drinks to be poured. Always offer one to the bar tender.


Pubs should supply a decent selection of salty snacks to encourage more drinking. The more pretentious the pub, the more expensive the snacks. Expect anything from Walkers (Cheese & Onion, my fave) to fancy 'handcut' crisps from a farm in Suffolk, with funny flavourings and wholesome packaging. Steer clear of bar snacks you have to eat with a knife and fork.

That pretty much covers everything. Recently, all kinds of silly organised activities have been introduced to pubs, including board games, quizzes, and other weird things like knitting clubs (WT very F?). All to be avoided.

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Electric Diner Review

I couldn't make it to the launch of the Electric Diner, so I sent along a Melissa-ette, Victoria Cooke, to report.

Electric Diner

London is awash with new restaurant launches, so exhausting in its pace that I don’t even try to keep up. I’m not sure where all the funding is coming from, but clearly either lots of people have deep pockets, or the current economic climate for London restaurants is so positive that the potential rewards vastly outweigh perceived risks. In any case, ours is not to reason why, and it can only be good news for the consumer.

What is cheering is the entrepreneurial nature of many of these new ventures, having started out as food trucks or pop-ups but now maturing into more established premises. Think Pitt Cue, Meatliquor, Patty & Bun and so forth. What many have in common is clearly an American influence, with ‘dogs, dirty burgers, mac'n'cheese (they just love shortening words) and doughnuts (or should that be donut, heaven forbid?) now firmly fixed in our lexicon.

And whilst the London ‘fooderati’ clearly have an insatiable appetite for culinary trends emanating from across the Pond, so it also seems that US restaurateurs are beginning to take advantage of this by dipping their toes in the proverbial water that is the London restaurant scene. Hence a nascent slew of collaborations with US chefs or indeed UK offshoots of US concepts. Adam Perry Lang’s Barbecoa was one of the first movers, and since then we’ve had Wolfgang Puck’s Cut and the expansion of the Sushisamba group with both Sushisamba and Duck & Waffle in the Heron Tower. Keith McNally’s Balthazar is due to open (though who knows when?), and burger joints Shake Shack and Five Guys are also supposed to be launching in the UK sometime soon.

Riding the wave of all things American, as well as seemingly bucking the economic trend, is Nick Jones’ Soho House Group, with its most recent offerings: Chicken Shop and Dirty Burger. Especially delightful is the choice of location in Kentish Town, a hitherto culinary desert and famed only for the Forum.

Another culinary desert where, as a resident remarked to me recently, “wealth doesn’t equate to good taste” is the Notting Hill/Portobello vortex. Yes, there is the Mall Tavern and the Ledbury, but the raft of new openings has tended to gravitate rather more East, and unsurprisingly in the West End.

So it was with frenzied anticipation that I made my way to the relaunch of the Electric Diner in Portobello that had sadly closed following a kitchen fire back in the summer. Pleasingly, the Phoenix has risen from its ashes in a blaze of on-trend glory and is sure to be a huge success in the W11 wasteground. Jones has collaborated with Brendan Sodikoff of Chicago’s Au Cheval on this one (ticking that US trend there on both counts) to bring Franco-American diner food to our shores.

While Manhattan’s stripped back décor of exposed lightbulbs and bare brick has been so evident across Soho and the East, the Electric Diner has gone for a rather more ‘cosy’ Cheers-type fit out. Bulging, fat red banquettes, dark wood bar, and swivelling leather bar stools, together with low-slung, curving wooden ceiling, reminiscent of an old-fashioned train carriage make for a comfortable dining environment. Plates are a mix of white and vintage, and drinks receptacles included a rather cutesy copper cocktail mug. I can only imagine these will go walkabout, much like the Mishkin’s tankards. The only thing the Electric appears to have retained from its previous incarnation is the precarious slope down to the bathrooms, which had me flat on my derriere some years back.

The food is pure heart attack food and the portions are huge. So far so typically American then! The menu largely mirrors that of Au Cheval, with artery clogging crowd-pleasers such as chopped liver, potato hash with duckheart gravy, Sodikoff’s famed burger, bone marrow and beef cheek marmalade and the house Bologna sandwich. There’s a “with eggs” section and a “sandwiches” section, though the latter is more “things in a bun” section for the uninitiated Brit. Desserts are basically pies – coconut and chocolate cream, and a mille-feuille.

We ordered a fair selection including the bone marrow, the potato hash, the rib of beef sandwich and the Bologna sandwich. For sides, we chose the bibb lettuce and avocado salad, sweet pickles, fries and tomatoes.

Duck & Potato Hash
We were informed that the food comes “as it’s ready”, which is fine, though our tomatoes and fries arrived before the mains, which was mildly odd. The tomatoes had been ordered on the misguided assumption that this was a tomato salad, as in my humble opinion, a tomato salad is a good barometer of a restaurant’s basic competence. Sadly out came grilled tomatoes, but they were plump beefsteak tomatoes with steak salt and chives and did not disappoint in flavour terms. The French fries were more akin to chip shop chips in size, but were beautifully crisp with a fluffy interior and the portion was enough to comfortably feed three of us. The pickles were a highlight for me – delicately sweet, flavoured with dill and mustard seeds, and without the all too common overly acidic vinegar bath. At £3 for a large bowl, these were superb value.

The Bologna sandwich is a sandwich common in the US and Canada, traditionally made from pre-sliced Bologna sausage in white bread. I believe Bologna sausage is rather like mortadella but without the giant globules of white lard, hence the eponymous nod to its Italian roots. Typically it would be accompanied with mayonnaise and mustard. The Electric’s version is served in a fluffy glazed bun, without about 4 inches’ worth of sausage and a subtle blend of Dijon mustard and mayonnaise. It was fabulously moreish but defeated me in size. Definitely one to share for the sparrows amongst you. All in all, the food was bold and ‘in your face’ and without a clanger. Even the salad was a winner: huge and well-dressed, rather how I’d like a man to be.

We didn’t do justice to the drinks menu, which features 19 beers, including the delightful Camden Gentleman’s Wit with lemon and bergamot undertones, and bottled beers I’d never heard of such as the amusingly named Flying Dog Snake. Cocktails included favourites such as Old Fashioned and Bloody Mary, and new incarnations such as the Horse’s Neck (Sazerac rye, ginger, lemon, bitters, soda) and Root to Mule (gin, lime, honey, beer) which was deceptively weak-tasting but utterly moreish.

As this was a friends and family launch, the vibe was buzzy and chock full of air kisses. David Bowie and Queen’s Under Pressure tinkled away in the background and the service was slick, charming and knowledgeable. This is just what West London needs, and will be sure to be rammed on a daily basis. For those that can’t get a table (no reservations policy), there’s always the takeaway doughnuts next door ;).
+44 (0)20 7908 9696

Electric Diner
191 Portobello Road
W11 2ED

Electric Diner on Urbanspoon Square Meal

Tripadvisor Top 50 as it Should Be

Much as we all love to hate Tripadvisor, it's still a pretty accurate benchmark for the top restaurants in London because it's the place where the most people post and it's easy to forget that a lot of people do look to Tripadvisor as a reliable source when deciding where to go next or when visiting a city, and it's certainly the most widely used review site in the UK.

The problem with Tripadvisor is as @Goodman_London observed a few days ago:

There could be a place with ten amazing reviews and a place with 500 amazing reviews and five ok reviews and due to the law of averages, the place with ten amazing reviews from some friends of that place would be higher up on the list. Shouldn't there be some kind of regulation? Should there be a system in place that only allows a restaurant to enter the 'Top Restaurants in London' list if they have a certain number of reviews, say 100?

I went through the top restaurants in London (I think to about 126) and eliminated all restaurants that have less than 100 reviews and came up with this list, which I think is much more accurate. 

For the first time, a list that's unbiased, non-industry or PR influenced. Could this be the real top 50 restaurants of London?

1. Petrus
2. Gordon Ramsay Restaurant RHR
3. The Ledbury
4. Le Gavroche
5. Goodman
6. Barrafina
7. Whits
8. Texture
9. Apsleys
10. Galvin la Chapelle
11. Meze Mangal
12. Marcus Wareing at The Berkley
13. Soho Joe
14. Chino Latino
15. The Promenade at The Dorchester
16. Laughing Gravy Bar & Restaurant
17. Zuma
18. The Foyer at Claridge's
19. Gordon's Wine Bar
20. Hawksmoor Seven Dials
21. Wahaca Covent Garden
22. Chettinad
23. Clos Maggiore
24. Chez Bruce
25. Rules
26. Gauthier Soho
27. Quilon
28. L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon
29. Tea at The Ritz
30. J Sheekey
31. Murano
32. La Trompette
33. Naga
34. La Petit Maison
35. Viajante
36. Sketch Lecture Room & Library
37. Cantina Laredo
38. Pied a Terre
39. Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester
40. Chez Patrick
41. Kazan
42. Mildred's
43. tibits
44. The Square
45. JW Steakhouse
46. Dinner with Heston Blumenthal
47. Galvin at Windows
48. The Grill at The Dorchester
49. Cote Brasserie - St Martin's Lane
50. About Thyme

There are a few places I haven't really heard about but all in all, I think it's a much better list. Tripadvisor probably won't change but it will change the way I read the lists - if you can discount places that clearly don't have the volume of positive reviews, you can see what is really popular.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

How to Dine on Your Own

With the rise of the foodie and bar dining, it's never been more acceptable to dine solo. In fact, I rather enjoy it sometimes. But it can be awkward. Beware the pitying glances, unease of where to look, and most importantly, intruders. If you want to try a restaurant and none of your friends do, you need to make some new friends for a start. But it's also a great opportunity to go on your own and concentrate on the food and the atmosphere that you might not normally notice. If you want to grab a quick lunch and a sandwich from Pret again won't cut it, sometimes it's nice to go and sit on your own and people-watch while having a nice lunch. Here are some handy tips on how to make the most out of solo dining.

Spuntino, a perfect place to dine solo. From
1. Entry
Make eye contact as soon as possible. You don't want to scuttle in apologetically whilst looking at the floor. You're not going to enjoy that. Own the place, but not too much (If you know the chef's name, ask if they're cooking today. If they are, smile knowingly and protest that you don't want to disturb them. At all costs. You don't even know them, you just read about them in Time Out).

2. First order
If they ask what you'd like to drink as soon as you sit down, buy yourself some extra time and order some tap water. You don't want to panic-buy the first negroni you see. Then spend ten minutes perusing the wine/cocktail list. Resist ordering what you really want (vodka & coke) and go for a mid-price cocktail (about £8.50). The more Vermouth, bitters and ridiculous garnishes, the better.

3. How much to order
Don't get bullied into ordering the 'recommended' ten plates. Just order a few, and then a few more. There's only you so you don't have to pretend to like those pickled cat's feet your mate ordered. Take your time. Of course, it is expected to order off menu. Pick a word at random and say it whilst winking. Upon facing a blank stare, say, 'It's off Twitter?' They'll be too embarrassed to check. 

4. Camouflage 
If you're confident enough to sit with only the company of your massive DSLR, that's fine. Otherwise, you can sit with a magazine or book for company. For foodies, a cookbook, industry-related magazines or a copy of Fire & Knives are all acceptable reading material. It's also fine to livetweet your experience. Throw in some controversial comments about other diners or service to gain bonus points.

5. Elbows
If you're at the bar of say, Duck Soup, space is sparse. Highlight this by keeping your elbows in as far as possible and adopt a martyred expression. Unless you've taken a fancy to the hot tattooed, converse- and beanie-wearing guy next to you. In which case, 'accidentally' nudge away and keep your iPhone screen as visible as possible so he can see your Twitter/Instagram handle.

6. Intruders
If someone you don't want to sits down next to you and tries to talk to you, keep it to the food. You don't need to hear their life story. If they're not a foodie, feign needing the loo. On your return, move to the other side of the bar. This won't work as well in one of the many small Soho bars as you can see everything from any given point.

7. Paranoia
You may feel like everyone's staring at you. They're not. No-one gives a shit about solo diners any more. It's 2012. If there are people staring at you, stare back. Listen to their conversations - you can pick up some great gossip in Soho that you can tweet to make fellow diners paranoid.

8. Paying
Bring cash. You don't wait for no waiter/tress. You can slam the money down and saunter out, to avoid awkward silences while you wait for the card machine to process your payment. And you don't have to feel horrendously mean for not adding a full 12.5% gratuity if you don't think they deserved that.

Monday, 26 November 2012

No Reservations About Queuing

I was mildly irritated a few weeks ago when I read that Bubbledogs& were abolishing their current queuing system (put your name down on a clipboard and go to the pub round the corner to await a phone call) and replacing it with something much worse: visible queuing. Apparently someone had complained that they couldn't see a queue, thus not being able to see if it's busy. Well, that seems like a crap argument to me. Surely it's like complaining about not being able to see any customers in a restaurant at 5.30 that's been booked up! But surely if you wanted to go in there, you could pop your head around the door and ask how busy they were? Surely that's far more comfortable for everyone involved.

Restaurants like 10 Greek Street do it. According to @Rob_Hyde, the folks at Ciao Bella once came to find him in the pub next door in which he'd gone to sink a pint whilst he was waiting for a table. There's nothing worse than queuing, despite our English tendency to do it at every opportunity.

From the restaurant's point of view:No annoying impatient diners clogging up the doorwayNo tables of 10 demanding to know why that table of 2 that got there after them is seated first… because they can't see you from the pub

From the customer's point of view:No queuing in the cold and rain. You can go to the pub instead!You're more likely to find out how long the wait is, making it easier to wait

Queuing outside, like no reservations, is for the benefit of the restaurant. It makes it look cool and desired. But it's not favourable for the customer, who the restaurant should really be trying to impress. Instead, the restaurant is courting the potential customer without thinking about the customer who has already committed to going to the restaurant. 

Also, the restaurant has a ready made seemingly unlimited supply of customers, just waiting outside the door. It doesn't even have to make the monumental effort of calling the customer. 

My point here is not no-reservations. It is a slight irk of mine to discover I can't make a reservation if I know I'll be in a hurry or if I'm travelling an hour or so that I might not be able to get a table for another hour, but if I can sit in a nice warm bar or nearby pub, I'm ok with that. It's almost like making a reservation on the night anyway. You agree to come back at a certain time, it's just more short-term than making a booking say, a week before. The only difference is that you can't choose the exact time.

My irk is that I could be potentially standing out in the cold for a couple of hours, because the restaurant wants to look popular, and because I'll be so cold and hungry by the time I get in, rat would taste brilliant and a couple of cocktails will go down a little too nicely.

And another thing: why don't places take drinks orders in the queue? They could make shitloads of money - a lot of people would be quite happy to queue if they were drinking. It'd be like standing outside the pub having a drink and a fag. They take your card and put the drink on your tab. Simple.

I can just about handle no-reservations now, but don't make everyone stand outside for your own ego.
Which is exactly what the restaurant hopes for...

Monday, 19 November 2012

Walking into the Unknown

When was the last time you went to a restaurant without knowing anything about it? Walking into a place that you haven't seen on Twitter, or read in a newspaper, or heard about from your cool friend? I can't remember when I did. But if I do go into somewhere I know nothing about, I am uneasy. But why? London contains tens of thousands of restaurants. Not all of them are being talked about or more importantly, visited in their thousands because it's trend-driven and restaurants are talked about for being new, or for doing something controversial. Well, not all of the restaurants are doing something controversial. Some of them are just being good, quietly.

The ones that are are in several categories:
  • The 'cool' restaurants - They've been open under one and a half years, they're in all the papers still and they are still the darlings of Twitter. Nobody dares to criticise them for fear of being ousted from the cool circles. Possibly involving something meaty or fried. (ie. MEATLiquor, Burger & Lobster, Hawksmoor, anything Russell Norman)
  • The old favourites - The old hotels and restaurants that have been there since we can all remember, that are safe bets. (ie. The Wolsley, The Ivy, J Sheekey)
  • Restaurants near stations - They will always be full because of lazy tourists who don't research before they come here.
  • Chain restaurants - They're a safe bet in a city you don't know (but you'd never admit to going there). Simple.
But what about the unknown quantity? The countless Italian trattorias, the reams of dim sum places and the weird vegetarian cafe that's always intrigued you. You, as a cool London foodie, never go there, because your list of fried chicken and hotdogs is just too big. You want to spend your hard-earned money on somewhere cool, somewhere that you know will be good (and you know it will be because it's Burgerac's second favourite burger ever and it's got an average of 8.5 on hot-dinners)! If you go into somewhere you don't know, it might not be cool. It might play shit music, and worst of all, it might not be good. With the excess of information available to us at the moment, we want to know as much as possible but I'm tiring a little of that. You go into the restaurant knowing everything about it and you've probably seen five different angles of the same dish on instagram. Where's the element of surprise?

Walking into somewhere you've just noticed because you liked the look of it: that's exciting. Walking around and not knowing where to go can be good, because there are those 'hidden' places that no-one talks about but are brilliant. How can you discover them when you only go where everyone else is going, to tick them off your list?

So next time you're thinking of going to dinner, turn off Twitter and trust yourself. Walk around Soho or wherever you are. Find somewhere that looks good. Consider it. Does it look like somewhere you'd enjoy? Is it busy? (this doesn't always work, though. Angus Steak House is always busy. It doesn't mean it's good). And if you go inside and have a look at the menu and realise it's not somewhere you'd like, you can leave. It may make you feel uncomfortable for a few minutes, but it's better than sitting somewhere for two hours being miserable (like anywhere that you go) But at least you've tried.

Here are some places I've stumbled across without hearing about them before:

Cheap & Cheerful tiny BYO curry cafe in the style of Tayyabs without the queues or the hype. No Lamb chops but lamb korai is just as good.

Great value Thai owned by the sister of Alan Yau and her Thai husband. Not many people know that. Check out the amazing £6.80 set lunches.

Perfect date venue kind of French place. Great Andrew Edmunds style feel, friendly. Good wine.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

How to Recommend a Restaurant

Recently, a friend asked me to recommend a restaurant for her birthday in London. My heart sank. I HATE recommending restaurants to people. But I have to, because she's my friend, she invited me and because she thinks I'm the restaurant equivalent of Mary Portas. I don't like to correct her.

People may think that London foodies, upon being asked to recommend a restaurant, are smug creatures, reaching into their back pockets for the 'perfect little place' for every occasion. The truth is, it creates a massive amount of pressure on you, the recommender. What if you've been there a million times and they have an off-day? What will your friend think of you? Will you be off the Christmas list or will your friendship be good as over?

The problem is that there's always a lot of back-and-forthing. You may think you've recommended the perfect place, but the inevitable replies will come back: 'I was hoping for something a little more... authentic.' (You want more authentic? Go to bloody Tuscany then), or 'It's a bit out of my price range.' (Suggest that they go to McDonald's for a happy meal. Is that within their price range?) Or my favourite: 'I was hoping somewhere a bit cooler.' Sorry love, if you don't want to pay eight quid for a cocktail,  your 'cool' options are vastly depleted.

I put together a step-by-step guide to choosing 'the perfect little place'. It may not be altogether helpful, but it will give you an idea of how much of a nightmare it is.

1. The initial contact
"You know London restaurants, don't you? Can you recommend a really great one to me?" (It's funny how people always ask you to recommend a good one. It's like they think if they don't specify a good one, you'll tell them to go to a really shit one. Mention this in the style of an observational comedian, like it's only just occurred to you.

2. One size does not fit all
They won't give you any specifications because they will assume that if it's good, it's suitable for all occasions. This is wrong except in very rare instances. Restaurants are not like those 'magic' gloves from Primark. One size does not fit all.

3. Where?
You'll need to ask questions like 'where?' Out-of-towners occasionally don't realise just how big London is. To get to one side of London from the other when four different lines are 'down for maintenance' could potentially be the equivalent of their journey from Coventry. Give them a quick test on the tube map, to ascertain how much they know.

4. How many?
'How many people will there be?' Your answer's probably going to be different if there are two people to if there are twenty. You might have to go into private dining territory (if you book a PD room, make sure there is music. I recently had a semi-awkward dinner in which whenever there was a silence, it was really doubly awkward). Make wild claims about cancellation fees, to get a real number.

5. Style?
'What kind of food?' (you could spend some time compiling a varied list of restaurants when it turns out that they only wanted sushi restaurants. They expected you to know that, kay?). If they say 'I don't know', you may have to subtly interrogate them. If you have an area and a food style, it majorly decreases brain-wracking time (reel off several unlikely choices facetiously, just to annoy them).

6. Occasion?
'What's the occasion?' If they want more romantic first date than kid's 9th birthday party, it's going to change. Obviously. Make a short Powerpoint presentation of opposing places, with titles such as 'Nobu or Nando's?' (A thing to remember about birthdays is that the birthday boy or girl will hate you forever more if you ruin their birthday).

7. When?
'When are you looking to go?' 'Tomorrow.' If today is Friday and tomorrow is Saturday, laugh, long and loud. Bonus points if it's in December.

8. Budget?
 'How much are you looking to pay?' Your definitions of 'good value', 'cheap' and 'within reason' may vary wildly from others'. Grill them extensively for figures.

9. What's the damage?
A thing that it's important to anticipate is the paying of the bill. Does the restaurant charge automatic gratuity? Will your (large) party refuse to pay any? Will the party insist on painstakingly dividing up the bill? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, I suggest going to somewhere you can pre-pay at the bar.

10. Never go there.
Finally, are you going? If you are, anything that goes wrong in your normally favourite place will be YOUR FAULT. By all accounts, decline. Or make up a crap excuse at the last minute.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Review: Pintxos, Soho

8.30pm Tuesday night. Wanted to go to a 'sit-at-the-bar-with-a-drink-dining' type of place with a friend. Last minute obviously so booking wasn't an option (what loser books anyway, grandad?) so was wondering around Soho looking. Had tried to go to Bocca Di Lupo but was told an hour (looked nice that night, clientele - producers, producers' young trendy girlfriends & boyfriends), must go back there though. Spuntino was full too, so wandered over and up towards Barrafina. Cutting through Bateman street, we decided in the end to go to Pintxo, the little tapas place. Never been before. Exciting!

Pintxos (I'm still having to double-check how to spell it, stupid Basque words, why they don't just write Pinchos I don't know) is one of the currently en-vogue tapas places in London, a now solid part of the restaurant scene ever since UK Tapas grew up from being the kind of second-rate novelty it was 10 years ago.

I remember eating bowls of meatballs in smaller portions than I'd like in dodgy City restaurants called 'El Toro' or something,  full of Essex boy traders and being charged through the nose for the pleasure. It's now a fully fledged part of the small plate phenomenon where - hold on a minute - you also eat smaller bowls of meatballs than you'd like and are charged through the nose for the pleasure. Where are all the Essex boys? That is the question.

No Essex boys in Pintxos (spellcheck again) though, a mixed bag of media workers, probably art workers and researchers rather than top creatives (they'd be in Barrafina), and couples on first dates, or possibly in illicit affairs.

Actually where tapas really works is with people 'playing away'. It's not dinner really, although it costs as much, so if you go for a drink with someone you fancy but are not really allowed to be with, say, someone else's boyfriend for example, you can sit cosily and drink, and kind of have dinner together, under the thinly-veiled ruse of a casual platonic get-together. I can just imagine the high pitches cries of 'it wasn't like that! We were just talking about the day's ideation session over some albondigas!' as you dodge flying wine glasses when you get home.

So there we were, welcomed by a rather charming guy behind the bar, who gave us menus and then preceded to explain the concept of the restaurant. It turned out the menus weren't necessary, because the way it works here is you go to the bar and help yourself to whatever you want. Like a buffet. Drinks are ordered at the bar too. How fun and easy-going.

So here's what I had:

Potted smoked Mackerel was as ok as a little pot of smoked oily fish will always be. I ended up eating it using the skewers as chopsticks.

Chilli Chicken kebab with mint and coriander shot was quite tasty, in a kind of Tiger-Tiger 1998 Friday night canapé sort of way.

Pepper Stuffed with Goats cheese and pine nuts tasted exactly like the ones you buy in tins from Eroski (which isn't a bad thing tbh).

Peas & broad beans with some sort of mint and cheese (if I remember rightly) was a bit like Spuntino but just made me wish I was in Spuntino.

Tortilla. Now, everyone knows tortilla is Spain's secret favourite food, like Yorkshire puddings are ours, and crepes are France's. The only way tortilla should surely be made is with eggs and potato, butter, maybe some onion. Served warm and steamy. This was fridge cold, damp, depressing. Wet cold egg with cold vegetable, another terrible combination. Possibly spinach or something. Nasty.

Deep fried olives - olives are just fine as they are aren't they?.

Some other stuff that I can't remember. Some kind of mashed up aubergine I think. I should really remember to take notes.

My friend had by this point looked at me and said 'picnic food'. I kind of agreed. We decided to leave, so after dutifully carried our gathering of skewers to the bar we got the bill.
Now just under £40 quid for two beers and some nibbles is enough as it is, but what really shocked me was - you've guessed it -  the adding on of service.

Yes, rewind a little here. I sat down, I then got up again and went and helped myself to food from a bar. (Did I mention I did this myself?) Then I went back to the bar and ordered drinks, which I carried myself to where I was sitting. When I wanted to leave, I gathered up all my sticks and took them back to the bar, waited in line for my turn, then got our bill. At which point in this experience did I receive any service, let alone service worthy of a tip? Is smiling when you go somewhere service now? I genuinely wanted to ask whether the tips were put in a pot and shared with all the customers as they left at the end, because it is the customers doing all the service!

As I paid, the same nice charming guy behind the bar asked me - 'how was everything?'.
Do you really think I was going to start listing off a load of gripes? No, and that's because nobody ever does. Not unless you're one of those cringe-making outspoken people who relishes in causing a scene (everyone knows one of them). Call me a wimp but you don't want to spoil everyone's night. No-one likes a confrontation.

If Claude Bosi is reading this he would surely tell me to buy a pair of balls and play with them. Well Claude, after that I'm on my way to the biggest, hairiest testicle shop I can find right now! Which do you recommend?

So Pintxos (spelled it first time, yay) was a bit of a let-down for me really, doing the sort of tapas Spanish bars give you free to keep you there longer.

I probably wouldn't go back, unless of course I was having an affair, in which case it would be perfect.

Food: 4/10
Illicit leg-brushing, marriage-breaking potential: 9/10
Service 9/10 (I always award myself good marks)

(Sorry, no pictures)

Footnote: Sorry this has been my second gripey post about service in recent times, I promise I won't bore you again with this subject for a while.

EDIT: All references to Catalan have been changed to Basque, thanks for the tips!

Pix Pintxos on Urbanspoon Square Meal

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Why do we feel the need to tip?

Before I start, I should mention that I'm a waitress. I have been waitressing since I was about fourteen and so I have an intimate understanding of both sides of the story. The place where I work charges automatic gratuity. I don't like it and silently sympathise when customers complain about it but it's an extra few quid in my payslip at the end of the week, if I'm being entirely selfish. However, I feel it's become a thing we do without thinking, however good or bad the service was, and I think we need to start thinking about why we're tipping and whether it's really been earned.

I went to one of my favourite restaurants in Chinatown the other week. It's my go-to place because it serves good food and it's cheap. But the service is terrible. It takes an age to catch their eyes, they're a bit grumpy and they always give me the wrong cutlery. But I still tip them because I'd feel bad otherwise, which is ridiculous. It's almost like I'm being hypothetically emotionally blackmailed to leave a tip, and I'm certainly not leaving 10% (yes, TEN PERCENT, not 12.5 or 15%) because I thought the service was brilliant, or even good! So why is it so normal?

And why do we feel the need to tip only at restaurants? Why is it in the UK that we don't really tip anyone else with low-paid jobs - do we tip say, hairdressers or florists without thinking? Do they charge us service? I don't think so. Why is the hospitality industry so utterly revered, with chefs being treated like gods and waiters and waitresses being given extra money, just for doing their job?

One of the many explanations for tipping is that the word 'tips' originates from the acronym 'To Insure (ensure?) Prompt/Proper Service. This might not be true, but it is true that tipping used to happen before the meal to ensure that you were looked after well. That makes sense. Well, more sense. You shouldn't really have to pay more to ensure that you're looked after, but at least before, you are providing the wait staff with an incentive to work hard - if they expect a tip at the end of the meal, what's driving them to go the extra mile with you?

So why has the tradition changed to tipping after the meal? If the service has been particularly good. If the waiter or waitress goes beyond the call of duty to make sure that you have as comfortable and enjoyable a meal as possible. For example, picking out all of the red olives from the mixed ones because they can *only* eat green ones, remembering what that regular table's favourite wine is and suggesting a dish that would go well with it, or overhearing it's someone's birthday and getting the chefs to pipe 'Happy Birthday' onto their dessert plate. What we really want is for them to make you feel as comfortable as possible. Making suggestions, advising you that a certain dish takes a bit longer to cook than the rest, building up a genuine rapport and filling the awkward silence at the end of the meal when you're paying by making easy conversation. Pre-empting the diner's every request so they never have to ask for anything... That's the kind of service I would be happy to leave a tip for.

But tipping because the wait staff simply served you - why? If all they do is bring plates out and take orders and smile a couple of times, is that really enough? Are basic manners really worth 10-15%? Wait staff need to earn their right to a tip and not just assume that it's coming at the end. I'm exactly the same. I'll work my absolute hardest to make sure that customers are happy, but if they don't leave a tip, I'm affronted and mutter rude things under my breath when I'm cashing off their table on the till.

Tipping has become something that neither the wait staff or the customer thinks about. If you don't tip, you're branded as a bit of an arsehole. But you've paid £25 for the meal: bringing the plate out is surely included in that? If the service was the bare minimum, what exactly are you tipping? The fact that they didn't mess up your order? That you're scared of going back there if you don't tip? Even if the service is below standard, it's commonplace to tip, and if you don't, you run the risk of a confrontation. The funny thing is that the worse the service, the less likely you are to want to confront them about it.

Which brings me onto my next qualm. It's one thing to expect you to tip of your own accord, but the current trend of today which is in place in well, most places in Central London anyway is to add a 12.5% service charge (non-London friends balk at the added 12.5% service charge in restaurants; for me it has become a complete norm). The problem with the service charge is that as it's a given, the wait staff don't work for it and the customer gets a bit annoyed that they don't really get a choice of how much or indeed whether the tip is deserved. I mean, they say that it's optional, but it's not really because in some places, they get very annoyed if you want to remove the service (the only way to avoid this is to only pay in cash and who remembers to carry that much cash around with them?).

Another annoying trend is a service charge being added for sitting at the bar. You're sitting at the BAR where the staff don't even have to really move to serve you and is a lot less effort than proper table service. I've heard of people being charged for a bar snack and a couple of drinks. They're getting a tip for pouring a drink and bringing you some olives and you don't even have a say in it.

With the current trend of no bookings, no tables, time constraints, bar dining etc, the automatic adding of service becomes even more infuriating. The luxury of being able to book a table (yes your own table, not shared with some strangers), ask which table you want, near a window, in a quiet spot, etc, tailoring your experience to perfection, is all part of service. From the moment you pick up the phone you are entering your experience. The relationship between you and the restaurant has begun. You know you can arrive precisely when you have arranged, be led to your table, without fuss, uncomfortable waiting. This to me justifies a bit of the service charge and I find it greedy when these type of casual eateries still expect the same gratuity.

"But they don't get paid enough!" I hear you protest.

The classic argument for tipping is that wait staff's wages are so low, that they need supplementing. What most people don't realise is that their wages are lower because of the tips that they receive. Restaurants actually factor in the extra money received from tips and thus lower the wages. Wikipedia says this.

So, like many things like no reservations and small plates, it is in the interest of the restaurant for customers to tip, and that's why their wages are lower.

In my perfect world, I'd like to see automatic gratuity removed altogether. Unless you are a white linen tablecothed & carpeted temple to service, and I get a waiter catching a dropped napkin before it hits the floor, I find it greedy and arrogant.

But I know this is a tall order, so perhaps drop it in all you restaurants with no-bookings and casual bar style dining - we've just waited in a queue for ages and we're eating at the bar, our elbows bashing the guy next to us. It can be cool and fun, but it's no luxury. If I want to leave a tip I will, but don't take it as a given.


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