I’ve thought for a long time that there’s too much hype about how good restaurants and pubs are supposed to be. When it comes to hype, restaurants and pubs can be up there with the best of them. Their web sites often make exaggerated claims about the food on offer. Menus are sprinkled with words such as “artisan”, “aged” and “hand-made”, and contain words or phrases you’ve never come across before (“tonkatsu-inspired”, “nduja sausage”, “basil pistou). And you are informed that your crab is from Norfolk, your cheese from Yorkshire, and your Kale from Lincolnshire.
You will often be told the “story” behind the restaurant to make you feel that you are visiting a place where the owners really care about the food, the service and you, the customer.
And to drive home just how good a place considers itself to be, its door will be festooned with stickers from Trip Advisor, Square Table or one of the other countless organisations that market themselves by handing out stars or awards to restaurants, who grab them greedily.
But, of course, when you use so much hype, the customer’s expectations increase. And the fact is that there are far too many restaurants where the hype far exceeds the quality of food and service provided.
This week, I’ve encountered two gastro pubs where the food and service didn’t match the hype.
The order mix up
The first was in a pretty village in Kent, where I went with my wife and son on Sunday afternoon. I was told 40 minutes after placing our order at the bar that, sorry, I couldn’t have fish and chips. That’s right, 40 minutes later.
“There was a bit of a mix up. We had two table 52s down,” said a young guy coming up to the table. “Would you like to order something else?”
I gritted my teeth and ordered burger and fries instead. When it arrived 15 minutes later it turned out to be pretty average, although at £13.50 the price was above average. Remember, this is rural Kent, not London’s West End.
Fish with bones
The second villain was a pub near Tower Bridge. Having been denied fish and chips in Kent, I decided I’d have them here. I knew the pub quite well and the quality of the food had always been very good. However, it had been over three years since my last visit. But the pub still had the same two owners, so I figured the standards would be the same.
I was wrong. My friend discovered his fish contained numerous bones. I complained to one of the bar staff and asked him to tell one of the co-owners, who was sitting at the bar having a drink. He came over to see what the problem was. Here’s the conversation:
Me: There’s quite a few bones in my friend’s fish, although, so far, I haven’t found any in mine.
Co-owner: You do get bones on fish.
Me: Shouldn’t the fish be pin-boned properly in the kitchen?
Co-owner [Pointing to the menu]: It does say that fish might contain bones.’
Me: Yes, but shouldn’t the kitchen staff do a better job in removing them. Imagine if a child was eating this fish. They might end up in hospital.
Co-owner: Well, you’ve not found any bones in yours.
Me: No, not yet. But there might be some. Look, my friend’s just found another one.
Co-owner: The kitchen gets busy sometimes.
Me: When I go to my local fishmonger I always ask for the pin bones to be removed. And when I get him I check it to make sure this has happened. If not, I remove them with tweasers or scissors.
Co-owner: Yeah, well, the kitchen staff don’t always have the time.
Me: But I’ve always thought that removing pin bones from fish was a basic task for staff in any restaurant kitchen.
He shrugged and offered my friend another piece of fish, but my friend declined, thinking there was no guarantee that it would be any better.
I should add that the fish and chips were mediocre. The batter was soggy and the chips (about a dozen of them) dry. And this cost a whopping £14.
What disappointed me most about this experience was the attitude of the co-owner. He didn’t seem particularly bothered about the bones. Well, I have my standards when it comes to fish. If I served fish with bones still in it to friends who came for a meal, I would be embarrassed and I would be annoyed with myself.
As my friend and I left the pub, we noticed an A board on the pavement. It said, “Best fish and chips in the area.” As I said earlier, too many restaurants go in for too much hype.