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12 ways to make it into the Top 10 – according to our judges

We scoured the scorecards of the anonymous judges of the 2017 Eat Out Mercedes-Benz Restaurant Awards to find out exactly why some restaurants shifted up or down in the Top 10 countdown this year. Here are 12 ways restaurants can adapt if they want to impress the judges – or even just their regular customers, arguably a more important job – next year.

Billionaire’s shortbread at The Test Kitchen. Photo supplied.

1. Make sure the menu is spell checked by a professional

Nothing says amateur quite like seeing a ‘leak’ on the menu. The menu should be proofread for spelling, consistent style and foreign-language characters, especially if it lists dishes in other languages.

2. Pay homage to ingredients and producers where relevant

If the restaurant claims to serve fresh, local ingredients, the menu should place the focus on the right place, elevate producers and deliver what is promised. It is not necessary to list every single element in a dish, but the ones mentioned should be the heroes on the plate.

Soup du jour at Restaurant Mosaic. Photo supplied.

3. Be consistent

The à la carte menu needs to be as impressive as the tasting menu on any given day. (A restaurant will never be judged on its winter special.) The judges might mix it up, some going for lunch, some for dinner, some for a tasting menu, some for à la carte. All experiences must be of a consistent standard.

4. Don’t repeat ingredients

On a tasting menu there should be enough innovation and variety so that specific ingredients, flourishes, foams and sauces are not repeated.

5. Use local ingredients where possible

Local is more than just a slogan; it shows flexibility, creativity and consideration of sustainability. Having said that, judges might not penalise a restaurant for serving one or two imported ingredients if they’re not available locally, if they appear in a signature dish, if they’re cooked perfectly and if they meet the expectation of the consumer. (This may result in a lower score for ethical awareness, however.) Ultimately, the menu needs to reflect the philosophy of the chef, whatever that may be.

Lavender honey créme from Chefs Warehouse Beau Constantia. Photo by Claire Gunn Photography.

6. Use seasonal ingredients

Even if it’s a tiny dot of gel on a palate cleanser, all elements should be seasonal to avoid striking a jarring note. It’s more special for diners to look forward to eating the region’s bounty at certain times of year only, and seasonality encourages chefs to play with different ingredients in different seasons.

7. Cultivate professional, perceptive service

Truly excellent service at this level should feel completely effortless and unforced. It’s one of the most difficult things to get right – and rightly so. Waiters and sommeliers need to be able to read the customer. Would they like to be entertained and regaled with tales, or would they prefer to be left alone for an intimate dinner? Sommeliers should not try to push the most expensive wines, and waiters should not give overly long explanations (unless the customer wishes) while the food gets cold.

8. Training, training, training

Training and experience are keys to cultivating the perceptiveness mentioned above. All staff members, especially those who bring the plates to the table, should know precisely what it is they are serving. Where does this fish come from, is it farmed or caught wild, is it on the green SASSI list, how is it prepared and why? It goes without saying that there should be no dripping or spilling.

A dish at Greenhouse at Cellars-Hohenort. Photo supplied.

9. Be yourself

Restaurants should neither try to beat someone else nor be like someone else. There must be a sense of place that shines through, and the restaurant’s philosophy must be reflected. All aspects of the experience must fit together and tell a story. Don’t try to be too whimsical or too formal if it’s not your style.

10. Keep things comfortable

Dining at a Top 10 restaurant should feel like a comfortable, special treat from start to finish. Caring staff who offer true hospitality are all-important. The tables shouldn’t be too wide across to hamper easy conversation, or too close to that of neighbours. The music shouldn’t be too loud; the room should not echo; chairs should be comfortable. Guests should be asked if they are happy with the temperature and their surroundings.

One of Michael Cooke’s sustainably sourced dishes at Camphors. Photo supplied.

11. Drinks should match the restaurant, food and vibe

While wine offerings and pairings are judged for aspects like value for money and variety, individual wines are not judged, and restaurants are not penalised for offering only estate wines if this matches the restaurant philosophy. It’s all about synergy. The beverage list needs to fit the style of food, the vibe the restaurant wants to create, as well as the target market. A smart sommelier and astute general manager will ensure the beverage offering is at the right level.

12. Offer value for money

Guests should walk away feeling happy they got what they paid for, whether it’s R200 or R2000 per person. The price should match the quality, technique and entire experience. Ultimately, the judges need to ask themselves the following, and answer an emphatic yes: “Would I pay my own money to eat here? Would I come again, and recommend it to friends?”

See the restaurants that got it right to crack the 2017 Top 10 here, and read more about the scorecard to judge them here.

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