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18 June 2008

Does size matter?

This is cross-posted on The Guardian's Word of Mouth blog.

I had always assumed that big equals bad.  Fay Maschler's recent review of Quaglino's (400 seats) did nothing to dispel this fear, nor did the legion of poor reviews of Gilgamesh (680 seats).

My fears were only compounded when I heard that Guinness World Records had a category devoted to the World's Largest Restaurant.  According to the BBC, it was a hard-fought contest. The winner was Bawabet Dimashq in Damascus (6,014 seats), trouncing its closest rival Mang Gorn Luang (5,000 seats) by 1,014.

Is it possible that somewhere that makes more of its size than food can really be any good?

Of the four restaurants named so far, I've only eaten at Quaglino's. A surprise I know, especially as I don't live in one of the seedier corners of Kent. Nor am I a barrow boy. But, in its 90s heyday I did go. I can't remember a thing about it. Oh, except for its size.

It was, to a whip of a lad like me, ebloodynormous. And that staircase, well, was there ever a more suitable handrail to slide down? The food was little more than a side show.

But is this any surprise? Aren't gastrodomes doomed to serve mediocre food to the braying masses? Is small ever more beautiful than when wrapped up in fine napery and better ingredients? A meal I had on a beach last year in Brazil would appear to live up to this romantic vision. Sylvinha's is on a hard to access stretch of a hard to access beach. It has two tables and two staff: the eponymous Sylvinha who is host and chef, and a helper who serves and cleans up. The food was outstanding.

Without local knowledge and much planning there wasn't a hope in hell of finding the place. The chase was half the fun. It's hard to imagine there would be quite as much enjoyment if there were another 5,000 diners stuffing their faces. Surely big places can never maintain such high quality and are doomed to mediocrity.

I was mulling this received wisdom over on Sunday as I was tucking into Father's Day lunch at The Wolseley. By any standard The Wolseley is both good and large - according to the restaurant's website, they serve over 1,000 people a day. This is no mecca of mediocrity. My schmaltz herrings had a decent bite, indicating they were soused not sozzled. My omelette Arnold Bennett was richly unctious from the uber-yellow eggs, not too creamy and had enough haddock to give it all a rather sexy, smoky taste. The meal was digested whilst watching Bill Nighy, Dita von Teese and Jimmy Nail clearly enjoying their meals - as well as the other couple of hundred people tucking into their Father's Day meals.

There is definitely something about restaurants and size. I'd be interested in your thoughts. Are you swayed by the size of a restaurant? Do you run a mile if your restaurant resembles anything other than a boite, or does the concept of not eating with at least 500 other diners reduce you to paroxysms of claustrophobia? And finally, is the little Italian place around the corner ever nice?


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I've eaten at Quaglino's once many many years ago and we talked about stealing one of the famous ashtrays but that to be honest was all I can remember about the meal.

Personally I don't normally like large restaurants. A large restaurant to me is defined as the size of Wagamama's (hardly a restaurant & more of a canteen) or Masala Zone or Yauatcha or New World Dim Sum Restaurant in Gerrard place. I spose none of them are that large really.

I actually like Masala Zone although the service can be slow. The food at Yauatcha is gorgeous and you're spread out enough for it to still feel relatively intimate. The one and only time I've been to New World Dim Sum was for lunch with a group of work people and we were all very hungover. Fortunately we got served quickly and the food was perfect hangover food.

If I want to dwell over my meal I prefer a smaller more intimate restaurants. I know what you mean about the little Italian place around the corner - but I think it's about knowing what to eat. I'm lucky to live in Kew we have several small local little places round the corner that are wonderful and IMO better than the larger Botanist and Worrell Thompson's The Grill also in Kew. Ma Cuisine is fab, as is Q-Verde. The Glasshouse at Kew is Michelin starred and has about 40 covers. I'm spoilt so I can take advantage of great small restaurants a 10 minute walk or less from where I live which is why I get impatient with the larger canteen style ones.

I think it depends. I'm not so keen on huge restaurants in general, but if it's for dim sum then I'm usually there with between five and ten companions, so big is good. Somehow, having dim sum in a cosy little place feels a bit wrong.

I had dinner at Dinings in Marylebone (and wrote it up) last night; now that's a tiny place. Six seats at the sushi bar on the ground floor, a narrow space behind those seats to squeeze through to get to the stairs down to the (no more than twenty) seats in the basement dining room. I liked it a lot.

Have you seen the BBC4 programme about the largest Chinese restaurant in the world? Doesn't look at all bad actually. Like you, I typically find smaller places better.

You lucky man seeing Dita noshing down, normally you have to buy that on DVD or spend ages looking on the web.

Annie, Kake I agree with both of you, it basically comes down to whether you're in the mood for it or not. Nothing like falling back on an old saying: one size doesn't fit all.

Howard, yes I love that programme, happened upon it by accident the other night. For those who haven't seen it, check it out here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00c13z5.

As for Dita, if you're into that kind of thing Google Images means you don't have to hang around for that long...

I think for me it's largely psychological. A place can be large, but I don't want to SEE how large it is - so huge open-plan spaces call to mind Oktoberfest tents rather than haute cuisine. It there are 20 rooms each seating 10 people, I feel a lot more comfortable. All in my mind, I know, I know...!

I had a lovely breakfast at the Wolesley (no famous faces that day) with some spectacular pistachio pains aux chocolat, but the impression was somewhat spoiled by a waitress (is it just me or do they all look like extras from the stage revival of Cabaret??) who came up to us while I was giving my companion a lesson in how to use the new camera she'd just bought and told us "no photos". Firstly we weren't takign any and secondly... umm, guys, you are selling croissants and scrambled egg with smoked salmon. It's not exactly molecular gastronomy. So after that I felt compelled to take one sneaky pic of the food ;-)

Jeanne - I'm surprised at dodgy service. Although on the photo front that might have more to do with famous faces (despite none being present) than intellectual property. The Wolseley is a relatively safe haven for those looking to escape the paparazzi glare and I imagine the last thing they want is for the celebs to run scared when flashes start popping in the restaurant.

ashram functions where 100,000 are fed for a few days have fabulous food ... all depends on the motivation ... energy in the food from the cooks, the owner, the intention (love, profit) have more influence than people imagine

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