It you want to sum up what most people who regularly eat out are hoping to find, I think it could be boiled down to something like posh nosh for less dosh. In other words, great value for money.
Tastebuds and pockets are often gratified too. The standard of food on menus has shot up over the last couple of decades, served at prices which many average earners can afford. And there are more bums on restaurant seats than ever. Round the corner from where I used to live in Leeds a terrace that once sported nothing more than a chippy now has half a dozen busy eateries, all serving great grub.
I think the demand may have been driven by TV chefs showing people what a tempting plate of food should look like. It’s now hard to avoid a Mary Berry soufflé or a Hairy Bikers retread. Where once it was acceptable to have gravy slooshed over their meals, diners now expect them to be glistening au jus. And if what they see on their plates doesn’t correspond to something whipped up in a few minutes by Rick Stein or Nadiya Hussain they are likely to get out their phones and have a moan on TripAdvisor.
But times are getting harder for restaurants. On average 18 close down in Britain every week. Already we’ve had the collapse of Jamie’s Italian, and now the Pizza Express restaurant chain is in trouble. On social media people are saying that if it folds it should be renamed Calzone Express, but it’s no joke for the 10,000 people who work there.
Pizza Express is owned by a private equity company and reportedly had debts of £1.12 billion by the end of last year, which works out at £1.6 million per restaurant. Financial mismanagement on such a super-sized scale has put many livelihoods at risk, and I believe the time has come for these big business restaurant chains to be seen as unpalatable by diners who have a conscience. We need to eat out ethically.
So it was refreshing to visit a wonderful – and ethical – cafe in Scarborough last month to write an article for Big Issue North. The Seafood Social is the idea of Whitby Seafoods, one of the biggest fish processing companies on the Yorkshire coast. It provides products like prawns, fish fingers and scampi at cost price rather than taking a profit. All the money goes to the Rainbow Centre, a great Scarborough charity for the homeless and the hungry.
The Seafood Social is run by those people the centre is trying to help, which gives them a new focus in life. What is particularly outstanding about the cafe, apart from its food, is that meals cost roughly half what other places charge for the same dishes. This means customers can agree to pay the price of another meal, which will be given to someone in need of food. If the meal isn’t taken up, the cash value is donated to the Rainbow Centre.
It might not be the best time to talk about launching a lot of new restaurants and cafes, but it would be great to see places run along the lines of the Seafood Social opening up everywhere. I’d rather eat there than support some dodgy business milked by city fat cats.