“I know, let’s eat out!” has long been the usher to an evening of fine food in a fine ambience. It can also be a precursor to a vocal agreement to never do that again due to unfortunate incidents! An upfront decision on what is being aimed at is a “must”. Menu specifics aside, the proliferation of fast food outlets not taken into consideration, there must be a stated wish to dine “out”. A burger on your favourite chair in front of the TV may be more convenient but that is about the only benefit to be gained. By definition, the choice is narrowed down to a hotel, or a restaurant.
Restaurants tend towards the more formal. The owner or manager strives to create and maintain an ambience and does not suffer that which does not conform. This is how the establishment is to be judged and his team work at making it so. Many bear signs forbidding entry to those below a certain age because they are perceived to be uncontrollable, and the atmosphere smells of formality. This is often a requirement in the lives of people, I think of business meetings, marriage proposals and the like, which are identified by a background of people awaiting one’s whim, and the desire to impress one’s partner. Dishes are served with presentation of the food as a paramount factor and quantity takes second place to quality.
Specialist restaurants abound, the Shushi bars, steak houses and similar can be found everywhere and although less formal than their upscale counterparts, still present a purpose-driven ambience. Dallying at your table after your meal may not be actively discouraged, but the staff is waiting for that table so that they can gather more guests to it. The tyre company Michelin has been producing an annual rating of restaurants since 1900 and their reviewers, blending with the background, take careful note of not only the food, but also the entire experience of dining in a particular restaurant. Although probably the best-known, Michelin are not the only restaurant ranking organisation. Forbes, Yelp and Zagat have their versions too.
Whether it be a Michelin-rated restaurant, or Mom and Dad owned franchise, the sense of “occasion” in attending one of these is common. Without considering it, one finds oneself sitting straighter, tucking your elbows in and wielding the cutlery as taught by your parents, years previously. Far from being an unwanted overhead, this further enhances the experience. One is making the effort of one’s own volition, one feels special.
Serving staff should be summoned by raising a finger, or an eyebrow, although well-trained staff should anticipate the needs of the patrons and fulfil them without the need for calling. This should apply irrespective of whether the cutlery is of the sterling silver, or the glassine-wrapped plastic variety. The image of a Jeeves the Butler, type of Maitre De, impeccably clad with no expression on his face, and a snowy white napkin draped over his forearm, is one that many patrons carry in their expectations of dining in a restaurant. Management sees this, and does their best to comply with this expectation.
Rating a restaurant is thus a regimented compliance with a set of black-and-white standards. There is no subjectivity, and no room for misunderstanding.
A hotel on the other hand is characterised by concern for its guests. Waiters will weave through crawling toddlers in order to serve, there would be a constant hubbub of conversation from the tables and shouted requests for cutlery, condiments or drinks. By no means does this imply chaos. Movement is strictly but simply orchestrated and staff work to a purpose. Patrons are there to eat and that is the focus of those who serve them. Whether it is a separate restaurant within the hotel or the public bar with a selection of pub lunches, is immaterial, the patrons must enjoy the experience is the sum of the hotel’s aim.
The hotel menu thus is characterised by good tasting items with generous servings. The hotel kitchen does not consider a drizzle of chocolate sauce and a single blade of lemon grass, a meal, or indeed any part thereof. Replete guests are encouraged to relax with coffee or drinks, tables are cleared around them and there is none of the “here is your change, you may leave” insinuation. A visit to a hotel therefore becomes just that, a visit! Guests get to know each other and staff, over time, and become as family.
Although not formally ranked as with restaurants, there are instances of user-reviews for various hotels that provide some input as to what kind of experience awaits those considering a hotel visit. The “Trip Advisor” web site comes to mind. Hotels are categorised according to location, size and type, and potential visitors can make a well-informed choice as to what they wish to experience.
The lack of a single, universal, ranking system for hotels is one weak area that threatens the viability of the concept of hotel ranking. What is 3-star establishment in one country, could well be something totally different in another.
As a yardstick of which to choose when deciding where to go, the difference comes down to ambience. The ‘grand affair’ of a restaurant, or the homeliness of a hotel. My personal choice, and I have enough experience of both to consider it a well-based opinion, is for the hotel but I will never decry those that differ. There is an occasion for each.
Nature and content of the menu is in all cases determined by management and the ability of the chef, and not the type of establishment. The only time this should be of concern is when considering what kind of experience one wishes. The Restaurant Production Line, or the background clatter and murmurs of the Hotel Dining Room. Both have their place, and allegiance to one does preclude the occasional visit to the other.