The Art of the Restaurateur.
By Nicholas Lander. Phaidon; 352 pages; $39.95.
The past 30 years have been a golden age for restaurants, argues Nicholas Lander. They have emerged in the "most unlikely of locations, serving the most extraordinary food, and attracting the most exceptional following."
Celebrity chefs have received most of the credit for that. But their position is "overly lofty" in Lander's view. Great cooks do not necessarily make great restaurants. Atmosphere, design, location and organization matter, too. Food that is interesting to cook or impressive to look at may not be what people actually want to eat.
Making the customer truly happy is the job, often unsung, of the restaurateur, who risks his money (and sometimes health, marriage and sanity) in one of the most stressful jobs in the world.
The restaurant industry is huge: it turns over an annual $630 billion in America alone. Yet setting up a restaurant is one of the riskiest ventures. Around 60 percent of American eateries close or change ownership within the first three years. Lander starts his book -- and earns the reader's respect -- with his own story, told in taut and self-deprecating style, of how as a 29-year-old, with "absolutely no professional experience" and battling epilepsy, he took over an 18th-century London townhouse and set up L'Escargot. This innovative restaurant drew a devoted clientele. Since selling the restaurant (for health reasons) in 1988, he has been the restaurant critic of the Financial Times.
The bulk of the book is portraits of the people who run the world's 20 best restaurants, according to Lander. Though few readers will have the time and money, visiting all of these establishments would be a hugely enjoyable gastronomic education. Lander's compass stretches from Hazel Allen's Ballymaloe House in rural Ireland to Danny Meyer's Union Square Café in New York. Others include Gilbert Pilgram's Zuni in California.
Opportunities to salivate aside, the book also offers food for thought on the restaurateur's art. The "quintessential" challenge is managing the tension between the customer-centric wait staff and the kitchen lot, who care only about the food.
A restaurant's name must be short and unforgettable. Details matter, from lighting to menu font. Lander does not resort to the waspish prose that makes some other restaurant critics fun to read. But in these splendid establishments perhaps there was simply nothing to sneer at.