Wednesday, 24 September 2014

What's powering deformality in restaurants?

Recently I attended one of those industry workshops with a well known discount bookings company, and on the agenda was a talk from someone from Michelin Guide. Ooh I thought, how interesting. What followed was bordering on bizarre: the speaker was announced to be behind a screen, amplified like some sort of restaurant Wizard of Oz, proceeding to read out some kind of desperately worded script about being ‘more relevant’, with ‘small plates’ ‘no tablecloths informality’ and ‘groovily dressed staff rather than the penguin suits of yore’.

Please. Groovily dressed staff?  Bang on. That sure is what I dream of when I think of really spoiling myself at the restaurant of my dreams. Groovily dressed staff. Not drifting off into a magical world of professional service, not beautifully cooked food, but groovily dressed staff. Lucky the old red book is getting relevant, because I was beginning to think they had no idea that restaurants today were about groovily dressed staff.
I’m sorry (no I’m not) but The Michelin guide, tragically jumping on bandwagon trends trying desperately to stay relevant is rather like that mother of your schoolfriend who, desperate to stay young and cool, cringeingly wears the same teenager clothes has her. 

However, this obsession with ‘democratising fine dining’ has got me thinking. What does democratising fine dining even mean? Who are the people powering this so-called ‘shift to deformailty’ and what has made it happen?

The first thing I think of is the use of the word ‘democratising’. Isn’t fine dining almost the ultimate form of democracy? In which other situation can the everyman, no matter who they are, or where they are from, as long as they have £150 or whatever, go out, free of guilt and be treated like a queen? With the exception of possibly some day spas, possibly a night at a grand hotel, or purchasing a business class ticket on an airline I can’t think of any other example apart from restaurants where for a brief period, one can purchase (at a reasonable price) pure, luxury service. 

I often like to compare the restaurant industry with the airline industry. Both offer you a fundamental product: with airlines it is a trip from a to b, with restaurants it is your dinner. So once we remove this element from the experience, as we are so often told is the case - how often have we been told we want to ‘strip everything back and focus on purely what’s on the plate’ - we are left with the simple fact of adding service and luxury to the experience. Economy vs business class.
I can hear all the passengers in the long-haul queue at Heathrow now.
“I simply can’t bear all that stuffiness of legroom, quietness and comfort. Lying there, literally flapping my legs around in the stupid big flat beds. That annoying air steward coming over and offering to bring me food and Champagne and blankets whenever I want. The inane boredom of quiet calmness when I try and sleep. No, give me economy any day! I love the tiny cramped seats, not being able to get anyone’s attention, queuing 15 mins for the loos, the smell of someone’s crisps, the snoring and burping, my idea of heaven!!
Sure, there will always be people who want to simply get to their destination, where economy class is perfect. But find me anyone on earth who, if money was no object, would honestly choose economy over business class and I’ll eat my hat. And money is no object here. At no point has any ‘deformalised’ restaurant I can think of also ‘deformalised’ the prices. Service charges and menu prices always seem to remain the same. 

And what is with the design? Let’s consider the common elements: The concrete floors, the tiled walls, half-light filament bulbs, plain utilitarian schoolhouse furniture, the overruling embarrassment and shame of decoration, luxury or comfort of any kind. It’s like we’re all some self flagellating frugal religious sect, rather like the Shakers, who eschewed comfort and decoration in favour of durability and functionality - or the Puritans; who can forget the classic Blackadder scene where Edmund sarcastically offers his Aunt ‘a spike to sit on?’ in order to further extend the desired discomfort. 

Maybe though, it’s simply a social thing. A result of our society. I look around at the archetypal young London restaurant scenester powering every stripped out Brooklyn style eating house in town and I see a common thread, the home-counties middle-class comfortable background, the same kind who tried to cover up their posh accents at uni, for whom restaurants and service evoke the memories of their privileged upbringing, when they were taken to their local Michelin starred house of pomposity in the 1980s & 90s, being told to be quiet, the starchy linen brushing their knees and not being allowed to have more water unless a waiter topped up their glass.
They are used to experiencing comfort and subservience, they’ve grown up with it, and they are perhaps ashamed of it, preferring to visibly slum it, with staff that look like student versions of themselves, elbow to elbow in some kind of proletariat workhouse environment, which in some weird way comforts them as downstairs rather than upstairs at Downton.

So who knows what is behind it, but perhaps I’m just jaded. Maybe I’ve just sat down to too many sharing tables and ordered lunch from one too many matey conversey servers (poor me and my lifestyle) but when I hear someone like the director of The Michelin Guide chatting on about small plates and groovily dressed staff, I can’t help but feel sorry for them.

One thing’s for certain though, trends don’t last forever, and as more cookie cutter ‘deformalised’ restaurant offerings appear, I think, as always, the same folk who set the original trend will be the ones right back to the beginning, pushing to make going out to dinner something special again.


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