There has not been a day in the last five or more years, Gentle Reader, when your Humble Correspondent has not had your culinary interests uppermost in his mind. While the days have increasingly been spent "in trade", the evenings and days of rest have not been similarly frittered away. Over that period, we have visited perhaps a thousand restaurants - very few of which we have judged to be up to your standards. But we have learnt the telltale signs of places to avoid.
Your Humble Corespondent would be the first to praise high-brow cooking — and, indeed, silver service — if that is the dining task at hand. Unfortunately, though, there are many venues where ambition and delivery are strangely akimbo and the collective result is either corrosive pretension or stunning failure. Some signposts on this slippery road:
First Impressions One expects the front of house staff to be welcoming - after all, your cash is what keeps the restaurant in business. But you should shriek and flee, Gentle Reader, if they ignore you for what seems like an eternity. More often than not, you can safely assume that the same treatment will continue once you are seated. Similarly, be wary if you are treated like a long lost relative - either they haven't seen a paying customer for a very long time, or they have mistaken you for someone else.
Dress-Ups Jackets are important items of clothing when one is grousing on the moors or watching the jumps at Royal Ascot on an autumn afternoon. Otherwise, these straighteners are the invention of impecunious tailors and pot-bellied ne'er-do-wells. And impede one's flailing arms when attacking some delicious morsel with gusto. Stay away from venues that insist that "Sir" wear a jacket ... unless it's the Tiffen Room at Raffles.
As for ties, which were devised in medieval France to prevent the infrequently laundered shirts from getting stained ... don't get me started!
Detours You may think me slightly fey, Gentle Reader, but if one was looking for a drink or cocktail then one would go to a bar, not a restaurant. The Maitre d' foxtrot that takes you via the lounge or bar is how a less reputable establishment will try to pad the bill (remember, beverages are much more profitable for restaurants than food). It also helps dull the palate, so that one does not notice that Chef has a hang-over.
Ambiance Art Deco and chandeliers are all very fine in their place - like perhaps my Humble Abode - but in a restaurant act as a sure sign that more attention has been paid to decoration rather than degustation. Noise should be your guide, Gentle Reader ... the human animal vocalizes when it is enjoying itself, much like a cat purring. Abject silence, in fear of either reprimand or the bill, is like a garish neon sign that says "Flee!".
Lighting One imagines, Gentle Reader, that harsh lighting schemes are important for laboratories. Similarly, singles bars and brothels probably benefit from subdued lighting. Neither is suitable for a restaurant. You should be able to read the menu and the wine list, but not feel like you are treading the boards at Drury Lane or on Broadway. A suggestion - prepare to run if you find yourself reaching for either the Raybans or a candle.
Glassware This is counter-intuitive, but if your hostelers have been too cheap to provide appropriate stemware and instead slander the wine with jam-jar cheap glasses you should feign a mild heart attack or suddenly remember that you have Dengue Fever - and leave as quickly as possible. Any libation tastes better out of crystal, and can soar when paired with an appropriately designed bowl and stem combination. Only make an exception to this rule when the establishment agrees to the embarrassing proposition that you will BYOG ... bring your own glassware. Actually, belay that - if the restaurant agrees with this proposition, it is a headline screaming "gentlemen thieves".
Floor Staff Children are given first names so that parents can readily distinguish between them, not in the hope that they grow up one day to serve others in restaurants. The overly familiar "I'm Corey, and I'll be your server" is not only too much information, but also a plain effort to ingratiate oneself with diners to fatten the tip. Run, Gentle Reader, and hope that you can hide.
Service Your Humble Correspondent is not aware of any proper university that offers a doctorate in Waiter so it is unlikely to be rocket science: the art lies in doing the minimum (take the order, lay out the right flatware, bring and remove plates, answer questions without scrambling off to conspire with Chef, and smile at the right times). It is also important to avoid anti-social behavior like commenting on the selection ("Oh, good choice Sir" likely means you have chosen a high margin item), manically topping up wine glasses (see Detours, padding the bill), and asking if everything is all right (if it wasn't we would tell you).
Bill of Fare A good menu is more often than not simple, and an excellent one is matched with both the season and the availability of quality ingredients. There should be (in order) soups; chilled and warm entrees (Appetizers); a reasonable choice of fish, fowl, and meat; and a sample of small desserts. Decorative leaves to indicate "vegetarian choice", and a list of side-dish vegetables should raise the hackles, Gentle Reader. Otherwise Chef is having you do the thinking for him or her, and trying to justify charging you Y1,500 for a potato.
You should also avoid places that need more than four pages, Gentle Reader, or offer a bewildering range of set courses. Culinary masturbation is best kept in the kitchen or the confessional, and artifice is a poor substitute for technique.
Amuse An elegant restaurant will often offer an Amuse Bouche, which is supposed to be a prelude to the meal ahead. It should be interesting and fit with the rest of the menu. An inelegant restaurant will often offer an Amuse, which is generally either an attempt to make inappropriate use of some left-over ingredients, or a way to make customers feel better about an inflated bill. Avoid the second type of establishment.
Contemporary Art It is said, Gentle Reader, that the eye is the introduction to a good meal. One tends to agree, except when the kitchen spends more time over-working the plate than on getting the flavors right. Effort spent on decoration instead of deglazing is generally wasted. If it looks too good to eat, it probably is - art is meant to be enjoyed at galleries, not at restaurants. When confronted with a decoration Zealot, you could try escaping by either inventing an imaginary art critic friend and loudly discussing post-modern composition with her, or pretending that you have Tourretes. Either way, be sure to leave. By feigning sympathetic madness.
Leaving It is self-evident that restaurants should not be trying to chase one out the door. Unless, of course, you have just indicated that you lack the financial wherewithal to meet the bill. By now it is obviously far too late, but one should also avoid establishments that insist you pay at the table ... as if either you or they should be embarrassed by the act of payment. If the entrance is too narrow to accommodate both departures and arrivals, then they should relocate the cash-box.
Finally, every meal is a feast - and should both start and end with a smile. Join me then, Gentle Reader, in banning every venue that refuses even this smallest of courtesies!