I used to be able to afford to go to restaurants. Yes, it was a treat, but it was just about doable, and though it was never a pleasure to be presented with the bill, it didn’t leave you reeling from shock and buyer’s remorse.
The schnitzel in my favourite London restaurant has gone up from £12 to £20 for the small one and from £22 to £33 for the normal-sized one. Meanwhile, restaurants and pubs all over Britain no longer offer a mere hamburger. It has to be called a ‘short rib and flank burger, smoked Applewood Cheddar, shallot marmalade, garlic aioli and skin-on fries’ to justify its £17.50 price tag.
Recently, I foolishly ordered a cheese soufflé before I realised it costs £27 (or ‘27’ as they put it on menus these days, leaving out the pound sign to disguise the fact that this is a rash financial transaction). First courses cost what main courses used to ten years ago. Asparagus is £20 at Scott’s. Tea at the Dorchester, which I remember being just within the bounds of the imaginably affordable as a dream pre-Christmas treat in 2008, at £30 per person, is now £75: not worth it, surely, for a feeling of bloatedness over unfinished scones in the Orchid Room.
And how much worse is the moment of bill-arrival about to get? James Robson, the co-founder of Fallow in St James’s Market in London, has predicted gloomily that because food prices are rising by between 10 and 50 per cent, customer bills will have to go up by between 20 and 40 per cent this year. But it’s not only food prices. Think of the cost of cooking, heating and restaurant staff as well, especially at a time when waiters and washers-up are becoming impossibly hard to find.
As for rents, look up ‘restaurant rentals London’ and you’ll see it costs £175,000 a month to rent a place on the South Quay Plaza in E14. The landlords are desperate for the restaurants’ money, and the restaurants are desperate for ours. But that doesn’t mean I can afford to pay it.
Perhaps the real rich will always want to eat out. I tried to book tables for tomorrow evening at both Colbert and the Ivy Asia in Chelsea, just out of curiosity (six pieces of salmon sushi at the Ivy Asia cost £16.75), and they were fully booked except at the unfashionable hour of 5.30 p.m. So diners are still flocking in. I envy them, and wonder how on earth they can afford it – unless it’s on expenses.
‘Cue tiny violins,’ some will say, sarcastically and rightly putting my howl of anguish into perspective during the cost-of-living crisis. Nonetheless, it’s sad if restaurants have to go the way of school fees and West End plays – beyond the bounds of acceptable for the instinctively careful common-sense classes who after all that time eating lockdown pasta have surely earned the odd meal out.
It’s not even really the food I’ll miss. I wish you could go to a restaurant for every-thing except the food – because the best parts are sitting down, the white tablecloth, the bread and butter, the ice-cold white wine (although you have to wait 20 minutes for it to arrive), and the thrilling sense of possibilities that studying a menu gives. I even like the chocolate-covered mints served up with the bill hidden in its brown leather wallet, aimed to soften the blow at our local Indian. But I’ve learned to cook homemade curry at a fifth of the cost, and it seems mad to spend the price of an Airbnb minibreak in Italy on taking the family there, however much I crave the onion bhajis.
I was brought up in the 1970s and my sister and I used to get so overexcited on the day of going to a restaurant that we had a tummy ache and couldn’t enjoy it. So perhaps we’re now going back to that era, and family restaurant-going must once again be a vanishingly rare event.
Instead we’ll have to learn to avert our eyes from restaurants for fear of temptation, as we learned to do with hotel telephones and minibars, and simply fantasise about the joy-sparking moment of sitting down at a candlelit table in the hubbub of other people having a lovely time.
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SPECTATOR.CO.UK/podcasts Ysenda Maxtone Graham and Rory Sutherland on the cost of eating out.
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