What is behind a great dining experience?

One of the great joys of being a restaurant columnist is being able to visit many more dining venues than most people do. We in Zimbabwe are fortunate to have many such venues, and the vast majority of them are places where the welcome is good, the experience is positive and satisfaction levels are high.

Most of the restaurants, bars, coffee shops and other eateries I get to tend to be in Harare, but I have been able to get to others in Bulawayo, Mutare, Victoria Falls and other centres and it is my intention to reach as many parts of the country as I can in coming months and years.

The Epicurean column is more than simply focusing on the food and the experiences I have had; it is also about giving feedback that leads to improvement and providing news and information about the restaurant scene. It’s great to get feedback from readers and I thank those folk who share their thoughts and experiences with me or who ask questions and make suggestions.

Several readers have e-mailed me to ask for some general feedback and experience and to help restaurateurs by pointing out where I think restaurants may be going wrong. Some asked for a ‘‘top 10’’ list of restaurants, but I am always loathe to do that. I have often said that, since just about every place I have been deserves favour and applause in some  form or another, to name a top 10 might imply those not on the list are somehow lacking or are inferior.

Despite the enormous problems we have faced in this country, on a seemingly continuous basis, we still have a remarkable number of dining venues available to us, especially in Harare. With the economy in crisis over almost two decades, one wonders just how restaurant keep going, since most people are tightening belts and reducing expenditure to ‘‘must-do’’ things.

It must be said, though — as is frequently pointed out to me by various readers — there appears to be an economic elite in Harare with boundless wealth and capacity to spend money and it must be they who keep these restaurants going. Not so, according to many restaurateurs, who feel the bulk of their custom comes from ‘‘ordinary folk’’ who save, up spend wisely and treat themselves to occasional outings despite pressure no to do so.

Jamie Oliver

A lot of people wonder why I don’t just focus on top-end dining venues, those that are described as being for ‘‘fine dining.’’ The reason for a wider pool of content is that this column needs to be all things to all people, trying to show that whatever the spending capacity, taste or style, there’s something for everyone. So I include the whole mix, which includes bars with food, coffee shops, bistros, family diners, specialised theme venues and also those fine dining places. Over the years, I have written about takeaways, too, as well as fast food outlets.

In my writing I have chosen to focus on what the venues I visit are themselves created to do, and what their achievements have been. I don’t do a star review system, preferring to show readers what is available, what the offerings are and what the restaurant managers and owners are trying to do in their various places of dining out. If I have a bad experience, I will go back a second time to see if my original experience was a flaw out of the ordinary.

While I recognise that ordinary diners have only that one chance to be satisfied, I feel it right to examine if that glitch was just a glitch or whether it is an inherent weakness that makes the venue concerned noteworthy for the wrong reasons. I am glad to say that the vast majority of my experiences have been positive ones and I am also happy to say that where I have offered criticism this has been met with an equally positive response from the venues concerned, offerings thanks for feedback and committing to elimination of any problem areas if possible.

Zimbabwean restaurateurs are often seriously challenged when it comes to the little things that folk in other parts of the world would not find problematic, from sourcing inputs and finding competitively-priced products, to holding onto good staff not tempted by international offers and to being able to source electricity, water and other fundamentals without drama and effort. I admire them for doing what they do and for ‘‘making a plan’’ as we also say so often. They deserve our support and they deserve our applause.

Almost always they are humble and pleasant and welcoming and they work hard to make their venues popular and interesting. There are, of course, a few folk who make me wonder why they have chosen the hospitality industry despite having not one hospitable particle in their beings . . . but they are very much in the minority and I think they always work themselves into oblivion anyway.

Over the years I have had the pleasure to dine at some remarkable places and meet some superb hosts, whether owners and manager or front-line staff or folk from the kitchens.

I have enjoyed some superb food and some cuisine that is world-class by any standard. I have enjoyed décor and ambience that inspire or give joy, and I have seen places where simplicity rules the day but does so effectively and with style and grace. I have seen menus of amazing innovation and creativity. I have seen costs that bring a little water to the eyes, as well as prices that make me think: how do they do it at such a reasonable charge?

I think it surprising at the present time that restaurants can source the inputs they need at all, but cannot be surprised when I hear they have to increase charges because input costs have risen. We have enjoyed a long period of access to good food and good wine, for example, and I should hate to see a return to the days of shortages and massive price hikes.

I would also hate to see venues closing because of lack of business, or because they cannot keep going on the back of continuous crisis management. I hate the thought of large numbers of super staff being turned out onto the streets, with nothing for themselves and their families and through no fault of their own.

We Zimbabweans should be grateful for what we have around us and let’s give support to dining venues so they keep going. Let’s enjoy what is presented to us and, while not accepting standards that fall short of expectation, let’s remember the difficulties in providing the plates of whatever that are placed in front of us.

Let’s challenge over-pricing but let’s not stupidly compare prices with countries like South Africa; the situations are chalk and cheese and it’s not just comparing apples and pears . . . it’s comparing apples and tins of paint! Always give feedback to restaurants, especially when there are service or product disappointments, but let’s be constructive and reasonable in doing so. Let’s create rather than destroy.

A salute to every provider of food and beverages for our enjoyment. It is so satisfying to leave a restaurant after a meal of good food, good wine and good company . . . and great service and hosting. Long may we have access to this. And don’t forget to give this columnist your feedback on everything and anything to do with dining out.

In the coming two years, here’s hoping for a greater reach across the country and for the ability to keep on providing feedback to readers about a diverse and rich base of dining venues, from cheap and cheerful to the highest in haute cuisine.

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