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Eating out: rubbish, expensive or both.

Fri, 13 September, 2019

Eating out is a thorny subject: junk food, overpriced dishes, tiny portions or all of the above. I bemoan the fact that in the UK there is no option of good, cheap eateries apart from fast food - neither cheap nor good in fact. French bistros, Greek tavernas, Italian trattorias, even the German and Austrian Brauhäusern let you skip cooking and eat out in an unfussy, casual way. You might have a drink or not, go straight back home or hang out, no need to dress up but you have to ditch the tracksuit and the sofa.

The British seem to consider only takeaways as an alternative to home cooking – I’ll draw a veil over ready-made dishes. Is it due to the lack of supply or is there nowhere cheap and decent to eat out because of no demand? Ah but wait: we have pubs, the British equivalent of tavernas and Brauhäusern! They certainly used to perform that role but not anymore, sadly. It is again the supply-or-demand quandary: pubs are shutting down countrywide at the rate of 18 a week and the remaining ones either offer crap food or turn into gastropubs with more aspirations than culinary skills to fulfil them. Fine dining in a pub? That’s not eclecticism, that’s mishmash.

Who still gets blown away by fine dining anyway? Seven courses, a hundred quid per head, without matching wines? The gastropubs are all doing tasting menus now, just wait for your local Harvester to start offering tiny bangers on spoonfuls of mash followed by a square of battered cod sitting on a single chip. I won’t knock it completely as some restaurants still do it very well. Galton Blackiston’s Morston Hall in Norfolk, which I was fortunate to have visited recently, assaults you with full squad of seven sets of cutlery and rightly so – fine dining should be a little daunting. Galton doesn’t squirt foam around or make you google every single ingredient on the menu; the flavours are recognisable though by no means stale or boring. Classy, in the best meaning of the word.

Elsewhere small dishes are a thing. Not exactly tapas or meze, the menus offer an allegedly random, shortish list of dishes though the prices suggest their substance. Much criticised, though I like it: how often do they dish out a perfect starter only to go and spoil it with a thoroughly mediocre main? With small plates you can mix and match and do funky things like order three sweet ones. And the chefs can experiment away, judging the success of their salt-baked celeriac or bog butter by how much it gets ordered.

Very inventive, but much more often I think we crave a simple product, cooked in an uncomplicated way but outstandingly well. Ask your friends and they will shout out fish and chips or pizza as their favourite food rather than ballotine of guinea fowl or veal scaloppini marsala. And so I’m back at my original issue; why is there nowhere to go out for a simple dinner of meatloaf and mash on a Tuesday?

My little town is lively, diverse with plenty of restaurants (though alarmingly vulnerable to the High Street curse of recent days) but if I want to go out to eat, I Go Out: it’s an evening, it’s an expense, it’s a whole thing. Seeing as I don’t generally do takeaways, when I can’t be bothered to cook (oh YES it happens to me all the time), it’s Pizza Express or remortgaging the house. And I can’t even say fish and chips are the answer as I don’t like battered fish and I’m not big on chips.

Oriental restaurants come closest in my view but it's the luck of draw with your local Thai or Indian. Friends of mine had been going for about twenty years to one of the local Indian places almost every Tuesday for banquet nights and were devastated when the owner packed it in - early retirement not bust. And that's exactly it: eating out because it's good food and good value, not a bank-breaking special occasion.

The local Chinese or Indian is the way out then, but my dream of a meatloaf and mash remains unfulfilled.Maybe there’s a gap in the market; maybe I should go out and open Fiend’s Kitchen serving good and easy grub at sensible prices? But would anyone come? Would YOU come?


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