Conor Pope: Yes. And every single person who has handed over €10 for three sips of coffee and a grotty bun knows it
Can we just drop the pretence that Ireland is a good value place to eat out? Restaurants can be everything from delightful to disgusting but it’s very rare for people to leave one in this country marvelling at the value for money.
I know this. You know this. Chefs and restaurant owners know this and every single person who has handed over more than €10 for three sips of coffee and a grotty bun knows this. It is the depressingly inescapable reality of the world in which we live.
The reasons for the eye-watering prices are legion and well versed. We were unfortunate not to have much by way of a restaurant culture here until relatively recently unlike our cousins in France, Spain, Italy, Portugal, Greece and across Europe. I can count the times the Popes ate out through the 1970s and 80s on my fingers – and we were by no means oddballs in the Cork and Galway housing estates where I was reared.
Restaurants and cafes and delis on every street corner weren’t a thing here until the 1990s and setting the price bar at a time when the Celtic Tiger was languidly grooming itself had enduring consequences.
And we all know, Ireland is a high-priced place to live and work, with every single link in the chain connecting food from fields to forks sending costs spiralling. Wages are high – and have to be, if restaurant staff are to be afforded the luxury of a home. Taxes are high. Rent is high. Energy prices are high. Ingredient prices are high. Everything costs too much which makes it almost impossible, for restaurants to offer the good value we crave.
I’m not – and I can’t stress this enough – blaming all of those in the business for these realities although I’d like to point the finger at some – and they know who they are – who charge scandalously high prices for things that cost buttons to produce. It’s easy to accuse all restaurants of ripping us off and easier still when you’ve been given a platform largely built on complaining about high prices. But targeting the many decent restaurants is like kicking a puppy for chewing your slippers. Life is tough for restaurants and they don’t go out of business because they’re making too much dough.
The great pity is we have some of the world’s best chefs: people who love food with burning passion and can do astounding things with it. We also have some of the finest meat, fish and vegetables in the world on our doorsteps. But it all just costs too much.
The high-price problem comes into sharp relief when you have little people who eat like big ones. Having found myself in such a privileged position in recent years, every time I walk through the doors of a restaurant en famille, I know I’ll have no change from €100 and I know I could buy a week’s worth of food to feed all the Popes from popular German supermarket for the cost of one mediocre lunch in an Irish restaurant.
There are exceptions. Every Sunday in Howth, Co. Dublin, long queues form outside Beshoff’s with people from Argentina and Brazil and Spain and France, Italy, and the occasional Irish person lining up for generous portions of excellent fish and chips for around a tenner. I can feed my family for about €50 from there, a price which is by any measure excellent value for money – although it’s a takeaway and you do have to run the gamut of belligerent seagulls while eating al fresco. Beshoff’s presumably has lower overheads than many restaurants but it offers a roadmap others might do well to follow – sell good food at good prices and you’ll have a queue around the block seven days a week. And wouldn’t that be a win for everybody?
Georgina Campbell: No. Shock-horror restaurant prices stories will always get headlines, but they’re not the whole story
Moderate opinions with a positive message don’t grab headlines, so shock-horror restaurant price stories will always win out against the merits of more modest offerings. And in fairness, there’s often more than a grain of truth in them, with so many chefs competing for the limelight and offering tasting menus for as much as €200 and over, before so much as a sip of wine is taken.
There is a strong argument that, as it presents art on a plate in a theatrical performance, ultra-fine dining merits the prices charged. It may be ephemeral but, like sand sculptures, it is created for demolition (albeit at collectors’ prices). Yet, even among those who appreciate the skill and can afford to choose, a growing number would agree with Darina Allen’s comments in a recent column “I’m fast tiring of exotic foamy presentations and skid marks on plates, and ever more ludicrous dining experiences at extortionate guilt-inducing prices.”
Moaning about prices is natural, but it’s more productive to think about what goes into the price of eating out, and how the choices we make on a personal level can affect the cost and the value – real, long-term value, not just the price of a night out. In addition to challenges like high energy bills, rent, and rising pay, the recent budget did the food and tourism sector no favours at all, notably the increase in VAT – which is mystifying. Surely it must be counterproductive to make life even harder for the people keeping one of Ireland’s largest indigenous industries going, and their customers? So, although nobody wants to be thinking about the challenges that restaurants face when choosing somewhere to eat, most diners are probably well aware of the basic issues.
The thorny old question of cost versus value is key here and, while the examples given above are extreme, the paradox is that – whether for meals at home or eating out – the cheapest food so often turns out to be the worst value for money. It’s cheap for a reason: often based on poor quality ingredients, commercially mass-produced and/or highly processed, resulting in additive-rich meals with poor nutritional value and empty calories.
So it’s good news that one of the fastest-growing sectors in Irish hospitality is the small bakery-deli-restaurant. It’s also one of the most exciting because – while it can never be cheap – it’s the kind of tasty, nourishing food that we all enjoy eating, so they quickly build up a loyal customer base for their quality and value. These places are run by committed people (often life partners or siblings) who take pride in providing delicious fresh food and personal service, and being at the centre of their local communities. They also put heart and soul into supporting local producers and spreading the word about the good food that’s being grown, raised or caught in the local area. And this wholesome food is healthy too, so who knows how much money it saves on medical bills.
Then there’s waste – where small changes can make a big difference, including helping to keep prices down. Take portion size. A choice of appropriately priced small/large portions is offered on many menus and always welcome. And it can easily go further – by offering a choice of 6/8/10/12 oz steaks for example, as experienced recently in a South Dublin hotel when attending the Food On The Edge chef symposium. Avoiding food waste and giving guests more control over their budgets, this customer-friendly option could be applied to any menu. A small adjustment to the usual meat to vegetables ratio could also be easily (and painlessly) achieved and, as well as being healthier and more cost-friendly, would make a huge contribution to sustainable dining – in restaurants and at home – if it became the norm. Maybe this simple change is too moderate to make the headlines, but it’s just one of many. Eating out in Ireland already offers plenty of genuinely good value if you seek out the many mindful chefs and restaurateurs who put their customers first.