We scoured the scorecards of the anonymous judges of the 2018 Eat Out Mercedes-Benz Restaurant Awards to find out the finer details of what it takes to make the Top 10. Here are 16 ways restaurants can adapt if they want to impress the judges – or even just their regular customers, which is arguably a more important job – next year.
It could be as simple as cutting the lemon properly, making sure there’s no shell in the oyster, or thoroughly deboning a chicken. Notice if your ice cream has crystals, if you have corked the wine, and if all your petit fours on the plate are of consistent size. If the bread you’re serving is broken or crumbly, bring another slice. These are all real examples and all simple enough to get right if you make the time.
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’s not necessary to list every single element in a dish, but the ones mentioned should be the heroes on the plate. If your beef is supplied by a feedlot, don’t mention it – even better, don’t serve it!
This phrase is overused, but it rings true for those who get it right. Don’t overcook or overwork delicate ingredients like mushrooms or fish. Don’t hide what is there; allow it to shine. On a tasting menu there should be enough innovation and variety so that specific ingredients, flourishes, foams and sauces are not repeated.
The à la carte menu needs to be as impressive as the tasting menu on any given day – especially a Monday at lunchtime. (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.
If the menu lists the 2016 vintage of wine, then the 2017 bottle should not be served without you notifying the guest first. If you don’t have stock, say so.
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.
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.
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, hear the entire list of ingredients for each dish and meet the chef who prepared it, 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. Salt and pepper (if on table) should be removed before dessert, and the table crumbed. Wine and water should be topped up regularly.
It doesn’t have to be a leather-bound tome, but the menu should feel refined, not carelessly stapled together or grubby. Also, nothing says amateur quite like seeing a ‘leak’ mentioned on the menu. The menu should be proofread for spelling, consistent style and foreign-language characters.
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. However, there is such a thing as being too rehearsed. Waiters should not follow ‘the script’ to the point of losing their natural manner.
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.
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.
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’s 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 an astute general manager will ensure the beverage offering is at the right level.
Does your restaurant have its own garden or is it situated near farmland? Does the menu boast about seasonal, local produce? Make sure you reflect that on your menu. Even if you’re a meat-focused eatery, ensure there are enough plant-based options. It’s the way of the future.
The head chef should do more tasting at the pass to ensure that every dish is consistently seasoned.
Guests should walk away feeling happy they got what they paid for, whether they paid R200 or R2 000 per person. The price should match the quality, technique and entire experience. Ultimately, the judges need to ask themselves the following, and answer with an emphatic yes: “Would I personally pay my own money to eat here? Would I come again, and recommend it to friends?”