British restaurants leaving a nasty taste in the mouth

An underwhelming meal in London’s West End led to a voyage of discovery for George Pitcher.

Having just enjoyed a pleasant, but unremarkable, dinner for two in London’s West End back in the spring for a bill approaching £220, I embarked upon one of those Edwardian-style wagers that are usually made at the bars of gentlemen’s clubs and involve circumnavigating the globe in 80 days or passing off a Cockney flower-seller as a well-to-do lady in society. I bet my companion that I could fly to a city on the Mediterranean coast, enjoy a better dinner and return to London, all for a total lower price than we had just spent on that dinner. At stake, somewhat incongruously, was to be dinner at the restaurant of one’s choice anywhere in Europe.

Last weekend I took the bet on. We flew to Barcelona, principally for its seafood reputation, by easyJet – at £45.98 return each, by no means the best deal, but good enough – and set about finding a suitable restaurant. It seemed unsporting somehow to have fixed a restaurant in advance and, anyway, I couldn’t be bothered, so we set about finding a suitable, business-like venue when we arrived.

A queue had formed outside an awning in the Placa Reial and that’s always a good sign, so we joined it. Some 15 minutes and some pleasant queue-conversation in the balmy November air later, we were at our table, al fresco under the medieval colonnade.

The purpose of this exercise isn’t some epicurean review, so I’ll spare you the details – suffice to say it involved a superb confection of mussels, mixed paella, Catalan crème and Rioja. Total bill: E54 – or, absurdly, about £38. So the expedition had cost around £130. We weren’t including taxi transfers, but then we hadn’t included the cost of taxis in the London evening, which were considerably more expensive than their Barca equivalent.

As it happens, I rather spoilt the finances by not stinting on the hotel – and we stayed for two nights. But the point is that I could have booked a reasonable hotel for a night, enjoyed breakfast and the Picasso museum and still have returned home for less than the cost of dinner in London.

Now, this was a quite remarkable way to win the bet, demanding an examination of the business model on which the improbably named Les Quinze Nits (sic) operates. It also, incidentally, explained the queue – word had got around that here was a restaurant that provided food and wine of a standard that wouldn’t embarrass any business entertainer, for a total price that amounted to considerably less than I paid for a bottle of indifferent wine in Mayfair. I’m not writing some breathless travel piece here – what I’m interested in is the business model on which the Quinze Nits operates and what the catering trade in Britain could learn from it.

The caterers of the Placa Reial are playing a volume game over the widespread habit in London of offering a relatively fewer number of tables the dubious offerings of some celebrity chef at monstrously high margins. The Quinze Nits must have something between 150 and 200 covers, spread across two floors and the terrace. It opens at 8.30pm and gradually, but steadily, fill the restaurant from the queue to relieve undue pressure on the kitchen.

It has a lot of waiting staff, with two serving maybe no more than five tables. This would be a considerable overhead cost, but the slickness of service ensures a steady turnover of tables, quickly replenished from the queue. There is no booking, so no tables stand expensively vacant (and there are no booking staff). The restaurant appears to boom on a high-volume, low-margin, high-quality model. It is, if you like, the catering equivalent of the no-frills airline.

The major economic difference is bound to be the ludicrously high level of London property rents. There is not a lot of medieval property in prime locations that longs to be converted to the prosperous purpose of the Barcelona mega-restaurant. But it has to be said that the Placa Reial is just off the ferociously trendy thoroughfare of La Rambla and Barcelona property prices are rocketing.

It also has to be said that over-priced and under-whelming restaurants in Britain are far from confined to London. I have recently spent well over £100 for a quick business lunch in Plymouth and nearly £450 for dinner for five in Manchester – and we weren’t celebrating.

There are two conclusions: the British restaurant trade has got to stop being lazy and greedy and, secondly, those involved with business entertainment should do less of it domestically and instead spend a bit more time flying clients abroad. It’ll cost less and be more fun. And, meanwhile, I’m going to collect my prize in a small place I know in Bologna. It’s hugely expensive, but then I’m not paying.

George Pitcher is a partner at communications management consultancy Luther Pendragon

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