25 July 2014

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Square Meal’s 2011 restaurant survey


diner complaints 2011 - 200174733-009.jpgNearly half of all London diners’ gripes about the restaurant experience relate to service – or lack of it – according to Square Meal’s annual survey of complaints. Nicky Evans reveals the gory details…


Although the food is the focus of a meal out, London’s diners see service as the cornerstone of the restaurant experience, and it is gripes about poor service that make up 45% of all complaints from Square Meal readers. Prime sources of annoyance include rude, slow or unknowledgeable staff, and ‘cold’, ‘indifferent’ and ‘snooty’ attitudes. Worse still is ‘non-existent’ service for which diners ‘get charged a full service charge regardless’.

square meal survey 2011 - pie3.jpg

With television series such as Michel Roux’s Service shining a spotlight on the performance of front-of-house teams, restaurants need to understand that ‘impeccable’ service is as important to diners as outstanding food, and determines not only an establishment’s reputation, but also the likelihood of repeat custom.

Give us more: charming maître d’s (Jean-Claude Breton, Restaurant Gordon Ramsay) and ‘superb’ staff (Clos Maggiore, Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, Marcus Wareing).

Give up on: shaky switchboards (Barbecoa, Rhodes 24), dismissive, uncaring service (Automat, C London), snooty staff (Experimental Cocktail Club, Nozomi), slow, unattentive service (La Petite Maison, Ottolenghi) and heavy-handed table turning (Dishoom, Nobu London).

square meal survey 2011 - pie1.jpgValue and pricing

Groans about steep prices and poor value for money account for almost one-fifth of all reader complaints, up very slightly from 2010. High-end central London restaurants whose prix-fixe menus come peppered with extras went down well with diners looking for value, as did more casual eateries offering budget-friendly initiatives that don’t scrimp on quality, such as well-chosen wines by the carafe.

These findings are in stark contrast to 2010, when diners felt short-changed by set menus, and ripped off by ‘meal deals’. But a 16% drop in complaints about prices since 2009 indicates that restaurateurs have adapted their offering to current economic conditions with real success.

Give us more: sensible wine mark-ups (Bob Bob Ricard, Kettner’s), carafes and by-the-glass options (Arbutus, Polpo, Soif) and great-value set menus (Corrigan’s Mayfair, Galvin Bistrot de Luxe, Gauthier Soho, Le Gavroche).

Give up on: overpriced concept menus (Aurelia, Spice Market), minuscule portions (Nopi, Quince) and pricey wines (Cut at 45 Park Lane, Savoy Grill).

square meal survey 2011 - pie4.jpgDecor, ambience and overall experience

Complaints about ambience are up a staggering 39% on the year, suggesting that when diners decide to splash their cash, only an all-round top-notch experience will do. Even a meal out in the most stylish surroundings can be ruined by noisy neighbours or an ‘earth-shattering din’ (15%), ‘minuscule space between tables’ (10%) and, more than ever, lack of cleanliness (11%): everything from dirty cutlery to lacklustre loos drew complaints.

Give us more: destination restaurants (Cecconi’s, Spuntino, Viajante), talking-point decor (L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon, Sketch) and buzzing ambience (Bar Boulud, Dehesa, J Sheekey, Rules, The Wolseley).

Give up on: ‘naff’ concepts (Circus, Shaka Zulu), cramped tables (Andrew Edmunds, The Gilbert Scott) and bland or uninviting dining rooms (Murano, Pied à Terre).

square meal survey 2011 - pie2.jpgFood and drink

‘Flawless’, ‘fantastic’, ‘amazing’, ‘sublime’: overall, restaurants increasingly wow customers with the dishes they produce – complaints about food are 19% down on 2010. But when things go wrong, diners sharpen the knives. Aside from gripes about ‘dull’, ‘grey’ or ‘bog-standard’ dishes (68%), the most common complaint concerns food arriving cold (10.5%). Limited or seen-it-all-before menus also attract flak (8%).

Furthermore, despite Londoners’ stoic nature, we’re becoming more comfortable with complaining about bad food, or cutting our losses and moving elsewhere: a sobering trend for establishments that don’t meet our ever-higher expectations.

Give us more: consistently faultless food (Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, The Ledbury, The Wolseley), choice and flexibility (The Riding House Café) and regularly changing menus (Copita, José, Soif).

Give up on: disappointing, ‘average’ food (Cha Cha Moon, Chicago Rib Shack, El Camion) – and any hot dishes that arrive cold.

This feature was published in the 2012 Square Meal Restaurants and Bars Guide. The survey is based on a sample of 1,500 complaints, collected from reader reviews on squaremeal.co.uk during 2011.

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