Life Food & Drink

Wednesday 21 August 2019

Recessionary modesty makes way for boom-time brazenness

Disgruntled: restaurants are beginning to adopt the smug approach, personified by Basil Fawlty
Disgruntled: restaurants are beginning to adopt the smug approach, personified by Basil Fawlty

Lucinda O'Sullivan

To look at the restaurant scene in Dublin, one would wonder was there ever a recession?

That dark period seems all but forgotten now, as  prices increase in subtle and not so subtle ways and an unpleasant Celtic Tiger arrogance and greed creeps in again. Do we never learn?

Some restaurateurs seem to feel the balance has now swung in their favour, with the attitude in many city centre places being: ‘If you want to lunch, brunch or chow down of an evening in my restaurant, you come when you’re told, you stay as long as you’re allowed and you pay my prices!’

The hot-to-trot restaurants in Dublin are operated by big businessmen, some with up to 20 restaurants in their portfolios, but you are paying through the nose for that cocktail or piece of baguette as you perch on your bar stool or banquette.

The recession created plenty of opportunities for those with the dosh to acquire and invest in premises, install a good, young ambitious chef, create an online vibe, and lo and behold the about-town young crowd were champing at the bit to be the first across the doorstep.

Young chefs don’t have the dosh to set up places themselves and they invariably need the support of backers to get their names out there. I’ve seen big black cars swing up to the fronts of restaurants as Mr Big gets out like Al Pacino and does a walk-through of his domain or, in other cases, the ‘big boss’ sitting in the corner with a couple of cronies keeping an eye on his cash flow.

It’s purely a big business for them, it’s not a love of food or the industry in particular, it’s all about numbers.

It’s the same in London and other big cities. Some of these ‘angel investors’ have five, 10, or many more restaurants on the go. One restaurateur said, in some cases, big backers seemed to go after places with a cash-flow problem.

 “They help you out, put in that kitchen you need, help you with wages that week, and all of a sudden they have control.”

Apart from the fact that you generally have to pay for a bit of the poshed-up staff of life, ‘with Extra Virgin Olive Oil’ to justify the charge, sides are extra and necessary, while the practice of charging for every little bit of sauce you might have with your dinner has crept back in.

It’s how they make their money and how you end up with the smile wiped off your face when you get the bill.

‘You can have a lump of meat at a good price, guys. The cheaper cuts are so much better!’ But, by the time you add, say, fries and onion rings, or spinach, at €4.50/€5.50 each — straight from a local farm of course — plus a sauce or two at €2 a pop, you are adding around €13/€15 to the ‘cheap’ lump of meat, bringing it closer to the €30 plus mark or more.

 Not so much of a bargain after all, just a rip-off. It’s still a cheap cut of meat being sold at top dollar.

A couple of years ago, you could get a bottle of wine from about €19/€22. Now though, everywhere I go prices kick in around €28. I looked into a very basic casual place, doing not much more than posh sandwiches, in D2 sometime back, and was shocked to see their cheapest bottle of wine was €28, which was the same as a nearby five-star hotel.

You could have wine by the glass, but if you wanted the bottle that was it.

What also p**ses me off is the lack of half-bottles when you want to drink white and your companion wants to drink red. I love to see the 500ml carafes available —  it’s a good measure for two people.

 As for drinking water, the gimmick of charging for ‘filtered’ water has crept in too, ‘with as much as you want all evening’.

Do I believe that it’s all filtered?

Apart from what I am seeing myself, when it comes to prices and rudeness, I am suddenly being battered with the bad experiences of disgruntled diners, who are copping on fast and being annoyed by the greed.

“Now even the f**king fast food joints have got airs and graces,” said one guy to me recently. He was bemoaning the fact that his favourite hot dog joint had reduced the size of the ‘dogs’ while charging the same price.

“They’ve done away with waiting staff, you have to go up and order, which is a farce when they are trying to be fancier shmansier!”

Of course, we’ve seen that in the food industry — the shrinking chocolate bar — it’s called shrinkflation.

You’d think any eatery would be delighted with a booking for five people, but a young friend tried to book a table in a place in Temple Bar — to be told there would have to be a minimum of six to make a booking.

Many might have booked for six and lost one on the way, but this girl was too honest and, to add insult to injury, her custom was derided as she was told “we’re interested in big groups”.

 It’s not a nice attitude and I won’t be crossing the doorstep again.

‘Truffle oil’ is another price-hiking gimmick, for most of them are synthetic and not made using truffles at all.

Another girlfriend, a consummate diner who often accompanies me on reviews, reeled out onto South Great George’s Street from a jointed eatery last week bemused at the fact that once again the dining clientele seemed to have no care as to value for money. 

“It was all about being there and being seen.”

And so it goes on, starters are generally in double figures, with early bird menus diminishing and finishing maybe at 6.45pm. People will pay more, I am told, for good coffee, but it’s another money machine that runs up your bill.

Weekend brunch is huge but you will be paying through the nose for little Tristan’s free range boiled egg with sourdough soldiers and your charred cauliflower florets

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