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What Makes a ‘Good’ Restaurant?

September 24, 2017

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I’ve been writing the blog for over six years and it’s not surprising that people often like to ask me which my favourite restaurants are; where should they eat in London; where can they go for a special meal? The answer is rarely straightforward because what makes a restaurant ‘good’ for me isn’t necessarily what others are looking for. Of course you might say that well-known, highly acclaimed restaurants are bound to make a safe choice or recommendation, but even here the answer is complex. It all comes down to what’s important to you in a restaurant; what you’re looking for. And it isn’t necessarily as simple as just ‘good food’.

I think this is where blogs are ahead of popular online restaurant guides where anyone can post a review. Now I’m not saying I don’t ever use those … but I treat them with caution – how do I know that ‘joeblogsreviewer’ likes the kind of restaurant I do, knows at least as much about food as I do, and wasn’t in a bad mood when they wrote the review. I’ve had some of my worst meals this year in ‘well reviewed’ restaurants and even walked out of one halfway through my meal in Granada last week, it was so bad! Hopefully people who have read my blog regularly for a while will be attuned to the kind of restaurant I like (as well as hotels, cafés, etc.). Restaurant choices are highly personal, I think. Happily a number of people have told me of restaurants (and hotels) they’ve been to which I’ve recommended and have liked them as much as I do. But of course there are inevitable reports of people who didn’t think the restaurant I loved was great, and that ones I’ve heavily criticised were wonderful; what was it I didn’t like about them!

The reality is, anyway, that I don’t have a large number of restaurants to recommend as the blog is a hobby (one I love and brings me much pleasure), it’s not a job; no one is paying me to go out and eat regularly so even if I eat out perhaps once a week, it’s most often to tried and tested favourites, or perhaps just somewhere convenient before a theatre or cinema show. I have to confess though that since writing the blog I have become more fussy; I’ve become more fussy because I’ve learned quite a lot in the process of researching and thinking about what and where I eat; asking eating companions what they think; getting to know some restaurateurs and chefs. I’m less tolerant of bad service, poor food – and an awful Starbucks-style cappuccino today in an Italian café that ought to know better.

In the main, I’m not ‘into’ grand, posh restaurants. Largely because I can’t afford them! Or not very often. I’m someone who’s always been more at home in a fairly informal place; nice if it has a touch of sophistication but nothing too stuffy. There are always exceptions, of course. My most amazing meal in recent years was at Massimo Bottura’s Osteria Francescana in 2014. Lunch doesn’t come much more posh and grand than at a 3* Michelin restaurant that had just been voted 3rd best in the world (2 years later it would be voted No.1). Going there on my own could have been a difficult experience but it turned out to be a wonderful one, mainly because of the outstanding, amazing food but also very much because the service was warm and friendly in a quiet, not over-the-top way, so I immediately felt comfortable – and very excited to be there!

I’m someone attracted to a good atmosphere – a nice buzz where everyone seems to be enjoying themselves, but not so noisy I can’t hear my companion speak. Eating good food should be a happy not a sombre occasion so a good atmosphere is a must. I like to be made to feel welcomed but I don’t like the welcome to be over the top as if the waiter is trying to be my new best friend. I don’t like to be hurried as much as I don’t like service to be painfully slow.

Just as I like travelling back to familiar and favourite holiday destinations (like Amsterdam and Venice), I like going back regularly to restaurants (and cafés) I like a lot. I love sometimes exploring the new but often enjoy the familiar – a favourite dish, a comfortable atmosphere, perhaps being recognised enough for staff to say, ‘Hi, how are you?’ Basically, sometimes it just nice to know exactly what to expect!

Food quality is important too, of course. I don’t want to eat a terrible pizza, a boeuf bourguignon that’s not nearly as good as the one I cook at home, food that’s drab and tasteless, mean-portioned set menus (a particular bête noire of mine). So I love it when I find the ‘wow’ factor, food that makes me stop in my tracks and think or say (if I’m with someone), ‘This is amazing.’ But for me, great food isn’t a necessity; good food is, but if other factors come into play – a great atmosphere, great service, even great location – then a restaurant can become a favourite. These complex considerations have meant that I’ve always avoided using a point system in my restaurant reviews, because it wouldn’t necessarily make sense. But I’m going to stick my neck out today and give you my current favourites for 1) wow factor food, 2) atmosphere and 3) great service. These are places I go to regularly and have been to recently. There are other ‘favourites’ I haven’t been to for a while, like Moro and Palomar, and really hope to go back to soon. But meanwhile, here’s my autumn 2017 list:

1. The ‘Wow’ Factor – Barrafina, Adelaide Street, WC2

I first went to Barrafina in 2015 (read review here). I’ve been back a number of times and have never failed to experience the ‘wow’ factor. My very favourite dish is their arroz – I can hardly walk into the place and not order it, it’s so amazing. I like the atmosphere too, a lively buzz, and I also like sitting up at the bar and watching the chefs cook and enjoy that they’ll often engage and talk to me. I’m happy there on my own but have also been there with friends. Some people won’t want to sit at a bar on a stool, not be able to book and maybe have to queue a while; if you’re going with a number of people then perhaps it’s not so great to be spread along a bar, but overall, Barrafina for me is fabulous.

2. Great Atmosphere – Joe Allen, Covent Garden, WC2

Regular readers of my blog will know that Joe Allen is a long-time favourite. I love it partly because I’ve been going for so long – at least 20 years – and because many of the people working there have been there that long too, so I can always count on seeing a familiar face. Known as the ‘West End canteen’ it’s always been a favourite with the media and theatre land. I got to know it first through my publishing work. Joe Allen does the best lunch and pre-theatre menu I know; the food is excellent and so is the service. But for me just walking into that great buzzy place is fantastic. I had a panic when they recently had to move but that’s all worked out well (click here) and so Joe Allen lives on and no doubt I’ll continue to keep going for as long as I go on eating in restaurants. I love it.

3. Great Service – Masaniello, Twickenham

I wrote my review of Masaniello back in August 2012 (click here) and have continued to go regularly, even choosing it for my birthday celebration with my family this year (11 of us). It’s become a family favourite but especially now we often have two and a half year old Freddie in tow. My little grandson loves Masaniello too. They don’t have a children’s menu but will serve a child-sized portion of whatever you choose, even pizza (and they do fantastic Napoli style pizza). Freddie’s latest favourite dish is their slow-cooked beef ragù (one of mine too!). The staff are always so kind to him but they’re attentive to the adults too. My son has said theirs is the best service he knows anywhere. So, the food is great, it’s always busy and buzzing, but you also know you’re going to be well looked after.

I hope if you follow up any of my favourites you’ll like them as much as I do!

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