First of all, it’s local, within walking distance of my house. But not too near, I don’t want to walk past it every time I pop out for a pint of milk, or see it every morning with its hair in curlers. Between 10 and 15 minutes walk is about right, so I can work up an appetite on the way, walk off the meal on the way back. Because I like a glass or three with my supper, it can’t be somewhere you have to drive to.
The owner should spend most of his/her time and energy on the premises, so it cannot be a chain. From Alfredo’s in Essex Rd (now the excellent S&M) serving egg, sausage and chips, right up to Raymond Blanc at Le Manoir, there is no substitute for having your actual Patron sur les premises, keeping a beady eye.
The reception must be good. That includes everything from appearing to be pleased to see you, to taking your dripping coat or showing you where you can hang it, having a table clean and ready – especially if you’ve booked - and bringing you a menu swiftly. I don’t just go to a restaurant because I’m hungry – I go because I have an hour before my next appointment; want to sit down; get out of the rain; undertake some emergency grooming in the Ladies; talk to my friend; read my paper; write in my notebook; take my shoes off; have a pee or meet somebody. While in the joint, I want to be looked after.
The toilets are spacious and clean, with mirrors to suit all heights, and real towels. Not paper (environmentally dodgy) not hot air (ditto and time consuming) proper towelling. There’s sufficient space in the cubicles for me to change my clothes. If I want to.
I don’t care how fancy or basic it is, or whether the table is covered in a cloth or formica, in my ideal restaurant the table never shows evidence of previous meals. In a busy and popular place, where the table has just been vacated, of course I don’t mind waiting for it to be cleared. But in a half empty restaurant, tables left uncleared for more than a few minutes is a Very Bad Sign, and so is a table that looks cleared, but turns out to have sticky bits of old tomato sauce or sugary drinks on the table, which get on my cuffs, my wrists and my nerves. Yes, World Café, Crouch End, London, I’m talking about you.
My ideal restaurant bans smokers, only uses white china, is generous with the napkins and makes no charge for iced water or bread on the table. Glassware and cutlery sparkle, tables do not wobble, background music is soft enough to allow conversation, staff are friendly and professional.
Not too friendly, mind. I don’t want to know their names or their life stories. I don’t want them to touch me. I don’t want them to sit down at the table with me and be my friend. In my ideal restaurant, the staff know the menu because they eat there themselves so are able to tell me what dishes are like and explain anything I don’t understand. They take my order swiftly and cheerfully. They wear clean overalls or aprons, have clean fingernails and flat shoes, because they dart about a bit, you know, fetching and carrying.
The food in my ideal restaurant (you wondered when I was getting to that, didn’t you ?) is exactly as described on the menu. Hot food is piping, cold food is fridgy. Everything is fresh and made on the premises. The menu – which is never very long - features lots of fish, a good selection of vegetables, and some familiar surprises. I mean things like cabbage and welsh rarebit - traditional dishes which rarely appear on menus. There is no children’s menu and pushchairs, buggies and prams are not allowed inside. Children themselves are welcome, as long as they are prepared to eat real food and behave. Nothing is burned, or raw when it shouldn’t be, and every plate arrives within15 minutes of ordering. My satisfaction is checked. Once. Between 2-5 minutes after I have started eating. After that I am left alone until I have finished eating. If I put my knife and fork down, but there is food left on my plate, the staff ask me if I have finished before whipping the plate away. They clear dishes within five minutes of finishing.
While attending to my every whim, and laughing at all my jokes, staff in my ideal restaurant never fill my wine glass for me. They don’t know who’s driving so they keep their mitts off my Chateau de Plonk. They always ask me if I want dessert, and the dessert menu always includes something made with real, dark chocolate. They bring the bill soon after I ask for it, and always make it clear if service is included. They do not do that sneaky thing (yes Tas, The Cut, London, SE1, I have not forgotten) of adding in the service charge then leaving the bill “open”.
Of course my ideal restaurant does not – and never could – exist, but even so, I am prepared to devote the rest of my life to looking for it. Daisy Solomons