There used to be an adage that the main reason to visit a restaurant was to enjoy food that’s too complicated or too time-consuming to prepare at home. But now that’s old hat.

A recent report – based on in-depth interviews with two thousand Brits – found that only 5% of people now identify the quality of the food as the main reason to eat out. So why and how can it be that a nation of supposed foodies, eating out in vast numbers, rarely do it for the love of food itself?

Cost Before Quality

Nothing, apparently, tastes better than cheap. 35% of people consider discounts and deals the main reason to dine out: we want coupons, 2-for-1’s and all-you-can-eat buffet binges. The sheer volume of restaurant choices has driven down costs, meaning meals out are perceived less as a treat and more about utility.

In fact, the relative unimportance of eating out in the traditional sense is shown by how readily people will substitute the four walls of a restaurant for food trucks, food halls and food delivery.

“Atmosphere”

If a restaurant’s staff charm you, its lighting makes you feel sexy and thin, and its dress code promotes glamour, do you really care about the food? Are these things not enthralling in a way that, say, a piece of well-seasoned sea bass could never be?

Indeed in many metropolitan restaurants, when there’s music, wine, laughter and the overheads are turned way down low, the food is reduced to a kind of totemic status; there as an excuse to bring all the other stuff in to play. Really, the whole thing is a performance in such places – in which the punters chew the odd bit of protein and eye fellow diners while club music blares and instagramable cocktails are sipped.

Other intangibles

AA Gill used to say that people eating together was one of the great, civilising acts. And the real point isn’t the quality of bread you break, but the discourse and interaction around the meal.

And so it is that when we eat out, our very best meals derive from the fact we were falling in love with the person we dined with; we were laughing ourselves senseless; we were at ease with the world in general because we were on holiday, eating by the sea.

Holiday meals are, in fact, a fine example of how what makes a good meal is often extraneous to the food. You can have bread, cured meats and a glass of cheap wine at a no-frills restaurant in the beautiful square of an Italian village and it’ll be simple and exquisite. Put that exact same food and drink in a chain restaurant in an English shopping mall and the wine can taste too acidic, the salami stringy, the bread not as crisp and yielding as it was before.

Drinking & Dates

For many, restaurant food acts as stomach-lining fodder so they can stagger deeper into the night. And when food plays second fiddle to booze, the importance of its quality often goes out the window. At such times, breadsticks, bang-average bruschetta and re-heated cannelloni at a generic Italian may seem like the right stuff. It will provide fuel for the dance floor.

The restaurant will always be one of the most beloved of date venues. And on a date, the meal is at the bottom of the food chain in its importance: you want there to be a spark; you want to get laid. Your failure or success on these fronts determines your recollection of the restaurant meal.

You won’t ruminate on the under-seasoned spinach or the panna cotta that didn’t wobble enough beneath the spoon.

A word to the wise

Many people, of course, actively avoid restaurants that treat the food with great importance as they correctly fear a miserable night is in store for them. In such places, flowing conversation is made impossible by staff delivering dish descriptions with earnest or sometimes near-erotic intensity. There’s the fear a micro-movement by the diner, of body or even eye-ball, will cause staff to dash madly to the table. And if you visit the loo (even if it’s for the third time that night) a member of the front of house team will insist on following you.

None of this is the staff’s fault of course (they’re adhering to the criteria of certain restaurant guides) But it’s understandable when people swerve these places for cheap noodles and cold beer on a restaurant bench somewhere.

This all being said

Most of us have indelible memories of the occasional orgasm-grade dish that we’ve eaten in restaurants. And they are so good that the conversation, your fellow diners, and all other elements of your evening seem to disappear. Your pupils dilate. You feel euphoric. You develop irrational thoughts about not only eating the dish in question but ramming your face into it. You may also reflect on how you want to eat this dish as a final act before you die.

And in these moments, all arguments that food doesn’t come first are laid to waste.

Daniel Williams

Daniel Williams

Writer

London-based content creator, specialising in hospitality, lifestyle and financial services pieces.

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