Chef Mark Sargeant says that the recession has forced restaurants to abandon pretention and flummery in favour of getting the basics right. And that can only be a good thing
It may be too soon to announce of the death of that awful phrase, "fine dining". There will always be some grossly entitled, permatanned buffoons who feel more important because a teenager has ferreted about in their lap to put a napkin there, or because a glossy Frenchman has topped up their wine every time they took a sip. But the claim by chef Mark Sargeant that the recession may have been "one of the best things to happen to the dining scene in the UK" because it forced the restaurant industry to look at the way it serves people, makes an awful lot of sense.
Only last week Marcus Wareing announced he was ripping up his two-Michelin-starred dining room at the Berkeley hotel to create something more brasserie than waiter-frottage friendly. He wants service to be less French, and more high-end American. Starched tablecloths are disappearing – gone already from the dining rooms of Tom Aikens and Simon Rogan – along with the straitjacket of bowtie and DJ.
Then again these places had little choice. They are reacting to massive climactic change not from the top down, but the bottom up. The long recession created a whole new movement of casual popup restaurants, and pared-down environments run on a shoestring by young cooks and restaurateurs. Some of them have been "dirty food" joints like Meat Liquor or Pitt Cue; others, a little more sophisticated, like the Venetian-themed bistros of Russell Norman's Polpo group. But in all these places the focus has had to be on the food. Customers have still been happy to spend money, but they only want to see it on the plate.
That doesn't mean we no longer care about service. We now just want it done by human beings who don't sound like they are vomiting back a training manual. The hugely popular Hawksmoor steakhouse group, serves serious food at what can be serious prices. Their staff are exceptionally professional. They also happen to be bed-headed and inked, much like those at the Polpo group. In short, they look like many of their customers. This has to be a good thing.
It could all go too far, of course. God save us from the overly chummy waiter who hunkers down by your table – or worse still, tries to sit in your lap – to recite "my awesome specials list". Nobody really wants their waiter to be their friend. But less of the stupid flummery has to be a good thing.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
image: © Raymond Bryson