Simon Rimmer, the Merseyside-born chef and host of Sunday Brunch, is back with a new series of Channel 4’s Tricks of the Restaurant Trade. Here are his top tips for getting the most out of eating out.
1. Are you being served?
You’ll know whether it’s a good restaurant within the first few minutes of walking through the door. As soon as you enter, you want to be acknowledged – not seated immediately or treated like a king, but you want someone to make eye contact with you pretty quickly, even if they’re busy. Once seated, you should be offered a drink, given a menu and told about any specials or anything that is off the menu.
2. A big menu isn’t beautiful
If there are 85 dishes on the menu, how are they going to cook all of them well? Are they buying some of them in pre-made? Not that there’s anything wrong with that – there’s lots of good bought-in stuff – but they should tell you.
3. Look before you order
If a menu looks too ambitious for a moderate-looking place, order something like a steak or a simple piece of fish. If you’re at a good place, be adventurous. But still look around, see what’s coming out of the kitchen. I was in a pub in Bakewell, Derbyshire, with my parents recently and the menu looked ambitious, but we could see that the food arriving on the tables was fantastic.
4. Some combinations never work
I had squid with chocolate once, which was quite disgusting.
5. Check the local knowledge
If a restaurant says it’s using local produce, all of the staff should know where it comes from. If they are claiming that they use a local farmer, find out who it is.
6. You can order fish on a Monday
That stuff about not ordering fish on a Monday is nonsense. You might get really well-priced specials on a Monday, if something hasn’t sold well over the weekend. For example, turbot, which is an expensive fish, may arrive from the fishmonger on a Saturday morning, doesn’t sell brilliantly over the weekend, and on Monday it’ll sell for £15 rather than £25 because they want to get rid of it.
7. Drink the house wine
It’s usually fine. As an operator, why would you buy a product that was rubbish? If your house wine is no good, that’s not going to make people come back, is it? Some people say you should never order the second wine on the wine list, because that’s where the biggest mark-up is, but that sounds like a pretty desperate measure for a restaurant to take. Mark-up is mark-up: it pays for people cooking for you, waiting on you, the electricity… Yes, you could buy a bottle of wine in Tesco’s that would cost you £20 in a restaurant. But you could go and buy two metres of cotton for a quid and make your own shirt, couldn’t you?
8. Shell out for bottled water
I would rather spend £5 on a bottle of pure mineral water, especially in London, than have disgusting tap water. Is it worth it? If you resent spending £5, then it isn’t. But in terms of quality, then I think it probably is.
9. Beware chilly cheese
Health and safety makes it really difficult to have brilliantly looked-after cheese. So cheese on cheese boards is usually too cold. Unless you are somewhere that is going to sell huge amounts of cheese, and they can keep it at room temperature because they know it’s all going to go that day, it can be disappointing.
10. Lunch is a bargain
If you want to try really beautiful food, look for lunch deals at Michelin-starred restaurants. Food that would cost you £80–90 per head in the evening for a tasting menu might be in a lunch deal for £30. Bargain.
11. Deal breakers
If the toilets are disgusting in a restaurant, you’ve got to wonder what the rest of the place is like. Terrible toilets would be a deal breaker for me. That and bad service.