Dine hard

What makes a great restaurant? Fay Sweet puts together a five-star menu from Belfast to Beirut

Recommending restaurants is a ticklish business – especially in the full knowledge that one man’s mackerel is another man’s poisson.

But if recommending is hard, creating a successful restaurant is nothing short of alchemy. With so many ingredients requiring careful preparation and blending, it’s hardly surprising that so few establishments manage the magic. But when it happens, the result is sublime.

Design, of course, plays a significant role in the restaurant recipe, but even the very best would never be enough on its own to satisfy a diner’s appetite.

In this piece, with my five all-time favourite restaurants as examples, I’ll attempt to identify some of the other ingredients and describe their impact. But as an appetiser I’d like to dish up my list of restaurant hates. In design, top of the list is bright, cold lighting of the sort that was so popular in Communist countries – I always felt that I was under observation which, I guess, I probably was. This is closely followed by plastic menus, varnished pine furniture, pretension and mean-sized tables – those terrible tray-top things that are packed so tightly together that you touch elbows with the person on the table next door. Oh yes, and greedy restaurants that insist on squeezing in two sittings for dinner – a miserable experience for both sets of diners.

And now to happier things… the main course and the favourite five – in reverse order. Although London restaurants have improved beyond measure during the past decade, the best are overpriced and I can’t identify one that merits ranking in my top five. The cool shaft of space that is Coast in Albermarle Street is my main candidate for top ten-ranking for design, service and food, but it charges more than a comparable American or French outfit. So, to Scotland. Caledonian gustatory pleasure was unknown to me until I visited The Vintners Rooms in Edinburgh, run by chef/owners Tim and Sue Cumming. This place then jumped straight in at number five. Close to the port side at Leith, this massive, craggy stone edifice and former warehouse is hidden in a high-walled courtyard somewhere in a tangle of scruffy cobbled streets. It is a sturdy no-nonsense place – you walk in to the bar where there is a massive oak-topped counter, huge open fire and a scattering of decently sized tables on the flagstone floor. Bar food is a fraction of the cost of the main restaurant, but is excellent nonetheless. The restaurant, however, is just how I imagine heaven to be. Billowing clouds of starched linen, twinkling cutlery and angels delivering platefuls of manna. The secret here has been to allow the building a central role – there’s nothing fancy about the architecture or interior fit-out, it is part gentleman’s club and part rural French manor, and that tempo is perfectly matched by the robust food and wine.

At number four, I’ve indulged in a little nostalgia-wallowing with the Al Bustan Hotel restaurant in Beirut. I’d always regretted not seeing the city in its pre-war fashionable glory and suspect it can never reclaim its former glamorous status, but it’s still a fascinating place. This restaurant wins no prizes for interior design – the usual bland international hotel style – but it does serve some of the best Lebanese food I’ve ever tasted and has one of the most breathtaking views in the world, looking out over the entire city of Beirut – quite spectacular at night. With some serious design input this could really be put right back on the map.

In one of the most unlikely settings, my third award winner is Roscoff in Belfast, the only restaurant in the province with a Michelin Star. I bet chef/owner Paul Rankin (ex-Gavroche and trained under Albert Roux) lost some sleep when setting up this place wondering whether he could ever pull off what is now recognisably a small miracle. Roscoff wins my vote for its pioneering spirit, sheer courage and foresight – this is a cool, chic oasis of modernity in the timewarp that is Belfast. The current fit-out was completed by local architect Twenty Two Over Seven, which has created a hard, bright, noisy, exciting space with touches such as a polished beech floor, metal suspended ceiling, glass block screens and crisp spotlighting on the contemporary artworks, which were specially commissioned from Northern Irish artists. With an even grimmer record on healthy eating than the Scots, Northern Ireland must have seemed a long shot for a place serving up the lightest, most delicate French/Californian dishes, but Roscoff proves that excellence will always attract an appreciative audience.

Nothing could be further from Belfast than the stunning island of Tortola in the British Virgin Islands, where second place is awarded to The Sugar Mill. This is the closest I’ve ever come to eating decent American food – it is, in fact, a Californian-Creole hybrid. The chef/owners are Californian refugees who just fell in love with the place. The setting is spectacularly right on the coast, but my award here is made for an inspired conversion.

Behind and at the sides of the central building, the old stone-built mill, climbs a beautiful garden, and to one side has been added a wonderfully cool timber gazebo surrounded by palm trees where all diners gather before supper to try the most exotic of cocktails. The dining room is cooled by the thick stone walls, furnishing is simple – ordinary wooden chairs and a cloth-covered table, and the bare stone walls are lined with flower paintings.

For me there is absolutely no contest whatsoever for the title Best Restaurant in the World. The accolade goes to Bocuse, just outside the French capital of gastronomy, Lyon. This has it all – first there is a glorious processional route out from the city along the river. You can travel by boat in the summer months. This journey is matched by a startling arrival – the place is painted a lurid red and green and looks more like a classy Chinese restaurant than the home of modern French cooking. Staff are smart, uniformed, bright and welcoming – not one surly snarl to be seen anywhere. Inside, the large old building is divided into a sequence of dining rooms. Decor is not modern, but nor is it antique – the floors are worn flagstones and the overall colour and lighting is a perfect warm glow. Service was not unobtrusive, it was positively theatrical. This reached its grand finale with pudding, when a choice of a dozen dishes was produced from the kitchen and displayed around our table on three smaller tables brought over specially for the job. Around coffee time, if you are lucky, the great Bocuse – who must be 7ft-tall to the tip of his stiff white chef’s hat – wafts round the tables. And if you are even luckier, he will take you by the hand and offer a guided tour round his sparkling, stainless-steel-lined kitchen which is as neat as a pin and clean as an operating theatre despite having just served up 100 suppers. And the food… joyful.

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