Saturday, 29 March 2008

Why do restaurants clone?

Once, as a teenager nearing the end of my school career in Sydney, I was taken out to lunch at a famous seafood restaurant called Doyle’s, in fashionable Watson’s Bay. I remember nothing of the meal (I was not yet a foodie), but I will never forget the image of that picturesque little wooden clapboard building half raised on stilts to lift it off the sand, a balcony with tables prettily laid with white cloths, all facing the gently lapping waves of an azure harbour beach.

It was exactly as a classic restaurant dining experience should be: glamorous, authentic and true.

Some years later I returned to find Doyle’s had been well and truly got at by the money men. It had morphed itself into a chain of spangley, contemporary waterside restaurants dotted all round Sydney, not one of them with even one hundredth part of the charm, quirkiness, intimacy, elegance or integrity of the original.

What makes singles always crave to be multiples? There are economies of scale of course, and the prospect of more profit, if things work out. But what about the down side? And at what cost to the brand? Is the iconic Patisserie Valerie not cheapened by the numerous iterations of its wonderful Old Compton Street original rolled out all over London? Is it just me, or are we slowly sinking under a sickening tide of corporate Britain?

Recently, in Spitalfields, a British restaurant opened to great acclaim with the promise of a return to solid values of fresh food, locally sourced and traditional menus. The food media, weary of novelty, enthused over this "back to basics" approach. Fay Maschler wrote a rave review, praising the courageous little independent. But before the ink was dry on the page, her muse was already cagily negotiating the lease on a new, larger premises, and then another, and another.... And what effect on the original restaurant? The owners take their eye off the ball, standards slip, stumble and eventually fall, and the customer is sometimes less than enthralled.

Eating in a well-known Soho restaurant recently, I asked, teasingly, if the famous chef-owner was out back in the kitchen. I had taught myself how to cook from Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cookery some twenty years before, after reading his recommendation in the press. "This book taught me the fundamentals of French cuisine," he had said. It turns out he sold up some years earlier, to take over a deli in Notting Hill. So why is his name still over the door, I wondered, when he has nothing whatever to do with the business?

Antonio Carluccio is a name to conjure with. His eponymous restaurant opened recently in a road very near us: how trendy must this place be! However, do we expect to see Antonio’s broad, smiling face beaming out at us from the kitchen of his esteemed restaurant? No, of course not. Carluccio’s is a chain, like Giraffe, or MacDonald’s, or K.F.C. It is first and foremost a business concept, with corporate structure and ideology, debt financing and targets for growth.

It is everything to do with money and profit, and not nearly enough about food and good cooking. It would not happen in Paris, to places such as Chartier and La Coupole. Is this overly cynical? No doubt. But let me make a suggestion. In every branch of Carluccio prop up in the kitchen, visible to the diners though at a safe distance, a lifelike cardboard cut-out of the great man’s splendid, out-size form.

[Postscript.... Some days later.... My accountant just called. It seems after all the Market Coffee House may be coming to a High Street near you!]