Helen Martin: Keep feeding the restaurants

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THE outlook for the Scottish restaurant industry in the year ahead is grim. A survey by former TV presenter Stephen Jardine’s Taste Communications company has revealed that chefs across the country are deeply worried about 2012 and predict more restaurants will go to the wall.

Some people won’t regard that as devastating news. Fancy restaurants come way down the list of priorities in what – let’s make no bones about it – is moving beyond a recession and into a full-blown depression.

When paying essential bills to keep body and soul together is already a struggle for many, a fine dining experience that costs as much as two weeks’ supermarket shopping is surely no great loss.

But there’s a lot more at stake than the income of personality chefs or the gastronomic satisfaction of the well-heeled.

Glasgow may be the shopping Mecca but Edinburgh is undoubtedly the culinary capital of Scotland, leaving the west trailing way behind. The editor of the Michelin Guide once told me that such was the standard and level of competition in the city that it was “almost impossible” to have a really bad meal in Edinburgh.

Outside London, we are the leading restaurant city in the UK, especially for our population. We have no shortage of Michelin stars and it’s impossible to quantify what that means for the tourist industry. Yes, visitors might come to see the Castle, the palace, Arthur’s Seat and the Festival, the art galleries, the architecture and all the other attractions, but topping that off with a good and memorable meal is what turns a day-tripper into an overnight stay.

Our best restaurants are a destination in themselves and their importance in showcasing Scotland’s wild, farmed and seafood larder, not to mention the agriculture and fishing jobs attached, is crucial. Then there are the trainee and sous chefs, the waiters, waitresses, bar staff, kitchen porters and pot washers who depend on the business every bit as much as the man or woman whose name is on the door.

Chefs and restaurateurs at the upper end of the food chain are in a tight corner, serving the luxury end of the market at a time when most people are cutting luxury out of their lives.

It goes without saying that they will have to be inventive, reduce overheads and be more competitive. It’s no good relying on the minted alone, even in a city like Edinburgh where the finance, legal and political sectors should ensure there is always someone who can afford a £30 main course. Not only are there too few of them around to keep the industry as it stands afloat, but like every other business, a restaurant has to grow new customers. The biggest threat at the moment is the number of once regular diners who appreciate good food but who are now polishing their own skills at home in a round of reciprocal dinner parties rather than paying handsomely to eat out.

In one respect, eating out is like taking regular exercise. Once people get out of the habit, it takes a long time to build it up again. It has taken since the 1950s and 1960s – when cities such as Edinburgh had just a handful of fine restaurants which even the comparatively well-off would only visit for extra special occasions – to work up to the thriving industry the city enjoyed before the current financial collapse.

We used to eat out in what we considered to be the best places with the best food at least once a month. Today, with wine, paying £120 or more would be unthinkable. But we still, although less frequently, indulge ourselves in restaurants such as Tom Kitchin’s in Leith, Albert Roux in Gullane, or Tony Borthwick’s Plumed Horse in Henderson Street.

For around £25 each (less than one large round of drinks and often less than we would pay for a mediocre bistro dinner) we enjoy a three-course Michelin standard meal with plenty of choice. It’s a set lunch, so we skip wine. And for the record, all offer free tap water and some come with the extra of an “amuse bouche”. If you’ve never tried it and you can afford it, give it a go and help keep Auld Reekie on the culinary map.

Meanie spirited

A LESS inspiring Edinburgh “industry” was in full swing on January 2. The parking attendants were out in force round our suburban way, slapping tickets on cars parked in otherwise empty streets on a day that most people still consider a public holiday.

Maybe it was necessary in town to keep the traffic moving amid the January sales. But in quiet residential streets when folk were still innocently and unsuspectingly visiting friends and family it was sheer mean spirit.

Surely it must be possible to apply common sense to priority zones on public holidays. Otherwise it makes nonsense of the claim that the attendants’ purpose is to serve the greater good and keep roads clear rather than hit their quotas by simply issuing as many fines as possible . . . not that any of us still believe that old chestnut.