Today marks one year since the official start of my Girl Eats Oxford project. Since then, I've reviewed 42 eateries in around the city; eaten very well; seen more of my friends; gained a few pounds weight-wise and lost a few money-wise. I've also learned a lot about what exactly makes a restaurant experience 'good'.
I make no secret of the fact that I'm no 'food critic'. I'm an ordinary girl who likes dining out a possibly extraordinary amount. Like most other restaurant customers, I enjoy well-priced, well-presented dishes at a decent price. And if the atmosphere's friendly and inviting and the service good, so much the better. Sounds simple enough, but it always doesn't seem to be the easiest formula to recreate.
Fortunately, I've had mostly positive experiences of dining in Oxford. When I began this blog, I imagined that I could eat at most of the restaurants I was recommended in 12 months. One year on, I feel as though I could easily continue this project for several years: there are still so many cafes, pubs and restaurants to explore. So, I've decided to continue my mission for as long as I remain in the city. After all, there's still plenty to eat - and report back.
Reviewing restaurants makes you look at dining out differently. Every detail matters: from being greeted and seated to paying up, visiting a restaurant is an experience. While the food's usually the main event (antics with carpets notwithstanding), it's not just about what's on the menu. The material the table cloth's made of? I noticed it. The Christmas decorations still on display in February? I made a note of them. The lack of salt and pepper on the table didn't get past me either. But don't worry, I also saw the specials board and the selection of spirits behind the bar. Oh, and the waiter's smile.
Based on all these hawk-eyed observations, here are a few lessons I've learned over the past year.
1) Service matters
Sounds obvious, doesn't it. Treat customers well and they'll not only return, they'll probably recommend the restaurant to their friends too. So it's worth putting a little effort in to make a good impression. Indifferent service I can cope with; having to ask for a menu five minutes after being seated or waiting for half an hour for the table to be cleared when a restaurant isn't even busy, less so. I find I'm much more likely to return somewhere with decent food and friendly service than somewhere with excellent food where I've received below-par treatment. Timely service and a smile goes a really long way.
2) Salt belongs in a cellar
Those tea-light holders brimming with sea salt sure look cute, but remember what your mum told you about the nuts on a pub bar. Yep, your fingers aren't the first to touch those crystals.
3) Comprehension is key
If customers can't understand half the dishes on a menu, they feel intimidated. Enquiring after the odd ingredient or fancily-named sauce is fine, but trying to decipher a series of dishes that may as well have been inscribed in a foreign tongue isn't. Pretension has no place on a menu either: if you mean chips, say so. Everyone knows what you mean by 'chipped potato' anyway. You're fooling nobody.
4) Background noise
An empty restaurant is about as inviting as dinner with a dictator. Atmosphere isn't easy to create and there's no real substitute for the hum of a restaurant buzzing with diners, but some well-chosen music helps. Or even just some music. Nobody wants to feel like they're eating in a library.
5) Decor shouldn't stop at the dining room door
Customers also judge that other room they visit. I can't say I've been tempted to write separate reviews for the little girls' rooms (this site has it covered anyway), but everyone notices a bad bathroom. A lick of paint, some basic cleanliness and paper are the minimum; decent paper towels rather than a greying cotton one and a supply of fragrant handwash that doesn't bear a supermarket own brand label elevate a bathroom's status significantly. How to raise the bathroom bar even higher? Just add hand cream.
'And what about the restaurants themselves?', I hear you cry. 'Which is your favourite?'
That, dear reader, will have to wait until next week when I list my top picks from the last year.
I've also learned a lot about blogging in the past year. If any ladies reading are keen to find out more about how to use blogs to promote yourself or your business, come down to Fe-line Women's Word of Mouth: How to be a shameless self-promoter event at the Phoenix Picturehouse Bar on 10 April at 8pm, where I'll be sharing the wisdom of my experience alongside Jo, Fe-line's organizer and marketing professional.