During my time as an epicurean owl, I’ve noticed several hallmarks of good restaurants that are worth commenting on:
Amuse bouches, canapés with champagne, pre-dessert / sorbet courses, post-desserts / petits fours, and my personal favourite: takeaways. Just when you feel like you are never going to eat again, EVER, they present you with a beautiful almond cake, or pistachio biscuit, or something equally lovely, wrapped or boxed in signature packaging, and it’s surprising how much you fancy it the next morning. Takeaways was a trend I noticed a couple of years ago in America and, happily, it seems to have spread to the UK, especially for 2-star restaurants.
2. Tiny spoons
There’s something undeniably cute and perfect about the tiniest little spoon next to your napkin at the start of a fine meal. It signifies a bonus course, normally in some kind of shot glass, and never heralds a bad bonus in my experience.
3. Quenelle shape (pictures)
This shape is not exclusive to Michelin-starred restaurants but does seem to only appear when a restaurant is trying to impress you. There’s something about it that signifies class, and effort. I’ve seen it in the form of butter, sorbet, beetroot, ice-cream, potatoes …
4. Stunt plates
Several restaurants use these, and they tend to be Michelin-starred, as let’s face it, it’s not the most efficient use of crockery. A beautiful stunt place will mark your place at the table at the start of the meal, unblemished and shiny and possibly patterned in a specific way that complements the restaurant’s decor. It will promptly be taken away the moment you are served any food and you won’t see it again until your next meal there, where the process will repeat itself.
5. Butter slabs and salts
Butter in fine restaurants is different from your standard butter that you allow yourself to have when the latest intelligence on healthy eating decrees it to be OK. For a start, there is often a choice of butter, fashioned into a beautiful quenelle shape (see above), or into a honeycomb. Sometimes the salted butter has an artful sprinkling of sea salt next to it to identify it, and very often, the butter will come on its own black slab. The salt is often in pinchable form.
6. iPad wine lists
I first noticed this a few years ago in New York when iPads had crossed the line from being a new product to being almost ubiquitous. You get presented with a sparkling iPad at the start of the meal, with a cleverly searchable and categorised wine, champagne and cocktail list for you to peruse. While this is fun, I actually prefer having a traditional wine list as it’s interesting to see how these are presented differently in different restaurants, although some of them so are ridiculously big and extensive that you end up just choosing the first wine whose name you vaguely recognise.
7. Casual sexism
Female owls often book restaurants for their male companions as a treat, or a birthday present, only for the bill to be presented to the male owl at the end. Restaurants need to learn that, although sometimes of course it’s nice for a female owl to be treated, very often she is capable and happy to treat the male owl and the bill should not automatically be given to him. Some restaurants even give a menu without prices on to female owls so that they don’t even learn how much is being spent.
8. Hierarchy of waiting staff
In some restaurants this reaches the point where some waiters or waitresses don’t even get speaking parts; they are simply there to place a course in front of you or to fill up your water. I know that people in most industries have to pay their dues before getting to do anything fun, but I do sometimes feel sorry for those staff who don’t even get to test out their charm on the customers.
9. Splodges and dots
These are so artful and so beautiful but at the same time it’s so obvious that normal people would mess them up or smudge them in less than a second. This is the kind of food decoration that turns your meal into art and makes everything taste better.
10. Certain ingredients
These include, but are not limited to: dill, beetroot, blood orange, foie gras, samphire, celeriac, truffles, quail, edible flowers, caviar, mullet, chicory, madeleines, macarons, asparagus, jellies, yellowfin tuna, Wagyu and (occasionally) Kobe beef.
11. Simultaneous service and pouring at the table
At high-end restaurants, everyone at your table will often be served simultaneously by separate waiters and the yummiest sauces or veloutes or similar will often be poured at your table, with a perfectly controlled hand.