The role of the host is under-played and under-valued, but initiatives such as Restaurant magazine's Front of House awards may redress the balance says Fay Maschler
An acquaintance of mine has written a book based on the history of the London trattoria called The Spaghetti Tree. The story takes the opening of Mario and Franco's Trattoria Terrazza in Soho in 1959 – two years after the April Fool stunt on BBC's Panorama showing women harvesting spaghetti growing on trees – as the starting point and traces the ramifications of that groundbreaking business up to the present day.
When I asked him for the reason for the enduring success of the sort of Italian restaurant where peppermill, trolley and insalata tricolore are three of the weapons in the waiter's armoury, he said it was because they were all owned and run by managers. These chaps befriend their customers, welcome them with open arms, remember who is the spouse and who is the lover, note the idiosyncrasies of their requirements and generally leave them feeling happier when they go out into the afternoon or night than they had been upon arrival. And they do it without referring to a database. Said Alasdair Scott Sutherland, author of The Spaghetti Tree: "I can go to, say, Scalini in Chelsea and be greeted and treated like a hero or I can go to a modern Italian restaurant with a Michelin star and be looked at by the receptionist as if I'm a piece of muck". I thought it was a good point.
The rise of the chef as media figure has unbalanced the relationship between kitchen and dining room. A guileless punter who may book a table in a restaurant because he or she assumes that the chef who was on the box will be at the stoves is unlikely to have a wholly satisfactory experience – even if waiting staff dance a gavotte of attendance – when it becomes clear that the chef is in a meeting/attending a book launch for a tome he hasn't written/on a plane to L.A. where he is hoping to open another restaurant.
Meanwhile, here are a few observations from a customer whose profession it is to eat out. What you might refer to as "old-school hospitality" will never go out-of-date. It is the engine behind some of London's most successful and fashionable restaurants. Le Caprice is a good example. I doubt whether its customers know the name of the chef there. They would prefer to know maitre d' Jesus Adorno and have him know them. I Put My Trust in Jesus is a hymn for our times.
The greeting "Hi Guys!" is wholly and fantastically inappropriate except perhaps, just maybe, in an American-inspired fast-food joint. "Have you eaten with us before?" makes me want to reply: "No, and I don't think I'll start now". It manages to be both impertinent and condescending and is inevitably the prelude to some tedious explanation of an idiotic concept such as French tapas. "How is everything?"
– usually asked when the customers are deep in conversation – need never be uttered. It is obvious when things are wrong. A more or less untouched plate of food is a handy clue.
Mario Cassandro and Franco Lagattolla were on to something when they realised that people wanted not only authenticity in the food but authenticity in the understanding of enjoyment.
Nothing has changed.
Salad days ? Side salads in restaurants are invariably ridiculously over-priced – £4.50 is not uncommon – and seemingly just thrown together as a sop to the health-conscious. The development of the mixed bag of all kinds of frilly, spiky, unfamiliar and astringent leaves may have ousted the wet slices of cucumber and bitter rounds of green pepper from the so-called green salad, but even in chic, expensive restaurants, too little thought seems put into the assembly.
Different leaves have different uses. The simplest green salad made from English or butterhead lettuce with perhaps chopped parsley or snipped chives and an oily vinaigrette – to my mind the best salad – is hardly ever offered. Let's ditch the rocket – and reduce the price.