Three, related, things have happened to irritate me in the last couple of weeks. Well, clearly, the modern world being what it is, and me being in a frontline customer-service job, the actual total is rather higher than that. But I want to talk about these three linked things in particular.
The first was a minor annoyance on holiday as we stayed in a small Dartmoor village. Despite being small it was rich in tourist amenities - including a restaurant that advertised itself as a ‘fine dining’ destination. We looked with mild interest - but a lone vegetarian starter and not a single main course on the menu. Oh well, unfortunate. We moved on to graze in greener pastures and left them to the customers they could attract through the door.
I returned home to a page lead in the local newspaper (little better than an advertorial, but let’s not go there) saying that local restauranteurs were hoping to turn the town in which I live into a ‘foodie destination’ which would attract visitors and local people alike. I’m incredibly reluctant to dine at such destinations. I’m laying bets on this initiative not attracting me to any of the establishments involved, and I actually hope it doesn’t take off. Here’s why.
I’m a vegetarian who doesn’t eat fish or seafood. My partner is a vegetarian who eats these latter things only rarely. I associate the terms gastropubs, ‘foodie destinations’ and ‘fine dining’ restaurants with establishments that treat vegetarian or vegan customers as an afterthought at best and with contempt at worst. And the odds of my spending money in order to be treated like this are vanishingly small.
When I spend my scarce disposable income on dining out I expect a modicum of choice as well as good service. I do not expect a couple of starters, one of which is inevitably a salad, and a single main course. I do not intend to “just come along and speak to us” as, in my experience, this never works. The waiting staff do not speak for the kitchen and what they tell you is not always true or feasible. And I am not going to abandon 20-plus years of vegetarianism and eat fish for the evening either. You may think your chef is good - but not that damn good.
Chatting to a couple of friends recently opened my eyes to the fact it is not only vegetarians and vegans being messed about like this. The same goes for people with allergies and special dietary requirements who evidently have terrible trouble finding out what is fit for them to eat and what is not. Again, they feel the lack of choice and the dearth of accurate information keenly. And all this against a background where people with money to spend on meals out are an increasingly rare seam for restauranteurs to mine. If you don’t want to rise to the challenge of cooking me a stunning dinner then I don’t want to eat in your dining room.
Having ceased eating meat in 1983, when Quorn hadn’t been invented and you had to get a large proportion of your meals from the freezer section of the local health food store, I have seen a revolution in the way vegetarians are treated in supermarkets, cafes and restaurants. Of course, a meat-free diet has become more or less fashionable during different periods. But it is my observation that we’re in quite a retrograde phase at the moment, particularly when it comes to eating out.
Today I gained a new Twitter follower. That’s right, a ‘fine dining’ restaurant from a town that we had visited on holiday. They had retweeted something complimentary I had said about an unrelated amenity in the town (I’m guessing maybe an auto-retweet and follow feature based on its name) in order to promote their business. I had a look at the lunch and set menus. You’ve guessed it. One vegetarian starter. No vegetarian main courses. Blocked.
So, if I have a bit of spare cash and the desire to spend it on a restaurant meal, it will almost certainly fall into the hands of one of the local Indian or Asian restaurants, or maybe a chain that has seen the value of catering decently for vegetarians. It won’t be at a foodie restaurant. Indian restaurants have an innate cultural appreciation of ethical vegetarianism and anyone not wanting meat, or rejecting certain kinds of meat, can generally have as much choice as anyone else. (I realise this isn’t necessarily as good a solution for people with either dietary requirements or for vegans.)
But, pay a lot of money to be treated as a nuisance? I don’t think so.