digesting a year of dining
Looking back over 2009, it's impossible not to recognise that it was a very hard year for the restaurant business. Turnover was down, costs went up and margins were cut to the bone. Yet, despite this, restaurants are still trading, people still have their jobs and there are still customers looking for good food.
You wouldn't have considered this a backdrop conducive to opening up a new restaurant, but new ventures opened during 2009 nonetheless, and some of them impressed me. So, here's my pick of the best new restaurants that I visited this year.
- Pichet in Dublin, the brainchild of chef Stephen Gibson and Nick Munier, started with a blaze of publicity and lived up to expectations. Like the other restaurants that impressed me, it was entirely in keeping with the year's zeitgeist -- good food at affordable prices.
- The Brown Bear in Two Mile House was opened deep in Co Kildare by chef Fred Cordonnier. Here, you can eat superb food at gastropub prices.
- Tenors in Naas was another place where I ate very well off a menu that has starters for €5 and mains for €10. This simple way of pricing was the same in Green Nineteen on Dublin's Camden Street, which also produced very good food for the price. Green Nineteen has become a Dublin staple very quickly; it's talked about and is always busy -- a sure sign of happy customers.
- Bon Appetit in Malahide and Dublin's l'Ecrivain were my two Michelin-starred restaurant visits for 2009. Both of these venues now have set-price dinners which are superb value for money for the very best of Dublin dining, making high-quality cuisine affordable. And on the subject of affordability, the weakness of sterling against the euro meant that dining north of the border was attractively cheap. Paul Rankin is back in the kitchen of his Cayenne restaurant in Belfast and I had a very good lunch there for less than €20, thanks to the beneficial exchange rate.
- Le Tire Bouchon in Wexford town shows you don't need to go north of the border to find amazing value for money. The restaurant offers a five-course dinner with a glass of wine for less than €24, which looks too cheap to be true, but the food was good and, surprisingly, the complimentary glass of wine was very good too. My only worry about prices like these is that a restaurant could end up being very busy yet eventually have to close because the margins simply aren't there.
- Roly's in Dublin and Bates in Rathdrum, Co Wicklow, are two restaurants that I visited this year which had changed their menus and prices and, in both cases, made a change considerably for the better. Roly's turned its downstairs into a café with great prices on the menu and on the wine list. With desserts at €1.95, who's going to resist? Bates restaurant has reduced its prices, while its standards have actually gone up -- no mean achievement. If the phrase 'worth a detour' was ever apt, it is here.
Generally speaking, I've noticed that there's been a return to simple foods on many menus, and that's something I have no quarrel with. Beef fillet is not the only meat, chicken breast is not the only fowl, salmon is not the only fish. Frankly, I find more taste in round steak than fillet, more taste in chicken leg than breast, more taste in mackerel than in farmed salmon.
Less expensive cuts of meat tend to be cheaper not because they're bad, but because they're harder to cook well. That holds true for chefs and for home cooks alike, but learning how to cook cheaper cuts is rewarding. This year, pork belly and lamb shanks have turned up on just about every menu, but I've also been pleased to see shoulder of lamb, oxtail, liver and ham hocks making an appearance again.
Despite changes in the Budget, wine prices remain high but that's mostly a function of very high excise duty and a high VAT rate. It seems counter-productive to me to keep the taxes so high when it's so easy to cross the border and buy there at much lower prices. Surely this high tax regime results in an overall loss to the Exchequer? While everyone in the food chain has cut their margins, from suppliers to restaurants, the Government has steadfastly kept its costs to the industry high. Once again, I'd suggest that that strategy is counter-productive. If national Government and councils keep demanding high taxes and rates from restaurants, they'll effectively kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.
2009 was the year of my first experience of a 'secret restaurant'. That's a way for people to try their hand at having a restaurant without going through the hoops demanded by the various regulating agencies. You just open up your house and serve food to your guests, who don't pay you but do make a suggested contribution. My experience was fun -- the food was good and the craic was mighty. I suspect we'll be hearing more about secret restaurants in 2010.
So, what of this year? I have no doubt that there will be restaurant openings, but I'm equally sure they'll be outnumbered by closures. There's a very real problem out there with rents that seemed fair when we were all living flush on oceans of borrowed money, but today those same rents are punitive. Richard Corrigan tells me he pays more in rent for his restaurant on Stephen's Green than he does in Mayfair. Doesn't that just say it all?
The Restaurant Association of Ireland has made some predictions for 2010 and none of them makes happy reading. Their best estimate is that a third of Irish restaurants could close and that currently some 80pc are operating at a loss. The ones that are in profit are operating on about a 2pc margin on turnover and credit-card spend is down by more than 30pc.
Prices dropped dramatically during 2009 as restaurants outbid one another in offering the most courses for the least money. Prices are now as low as they can be, unless the Government makes some changes. Restaurants face one of the highest VAT rates in Europe, the highest minimum wage -- at €9.32, it's 8pc higher than the minimum wage of €8.65 in other industries -- and rents that can't legally be reduced. Couple that with high rates, high water and refuse charges, and you can see that restaurants are being squeezed hard.
The catering industry employs 64,000 people directly, plus thousands of others indirectly whose job it is to regulate the everyday minutiae of the business. These countless regulations have added hugely to the red tape, and now form-filling takes up almost as much of a chef's time as cooking does. If all of these regulations are supposed to improve food in restaurants, then how come the food is generally better in France and Italy where these regulations are universally ignored? Only this week I spoke to a restaurateur who was told that if he wanted to serve a customer a rare steak, he'd have to get the customer to sign a disclaimer form. Have these bureaucrats gone insane?
In 2009, restaurants put their houses in order, so hopefully in 2010 the Government and the regulatory agencies concerned with the catering industry will put their houses in order. An injection of some old-fashioned common sense would go a long way to improving things.
Read Paolo at www.tasteofireland.ie