The Restaurant Aperitif Experience

Regular readers of my musings will know by now just how much importance I place on a good aperitif. Indeed, it has become the quickest and easiest way to get the measure of a restaurant for me. Walking into a new establishment for the first time, we wonder "Am I going to love this? Is it for me? Will it be my new favourite or one I'll wish I hadn't bothered with?"

Order an aperitif and see how they respond. It'll tell you almost everything you need to know about the restaurant.

There have been restaurants where the waiter has shown us to our table, handed us a menu and walked away before we could speak. This tells me they're not expecting us to take our time here. They'll come back to take our order, but any drinks we order then will arrive with the starter. Best order a mid-price bottle of white wine and clear off as quickly as every other diner. They're not ready for customers who will lazily make their way through a meal, relishing every taste and texture, so the food is unlikely to stand up to much consideration.

Perhaps the waiter is clued-up enough to offer you a drink, but it doesn't arrive before they return to take your food order. You won't be as pressed here, but it'll be a bit functional. They see your aperitif as a means to fill the time it takes to peruse the menu and choose your dinner. They're not understanding your aperitif on a psychological level - a means to relax and get in the mood for a beautiful meal. I'd wonder what else they see as functional and whether they have sufficient self-belief to succeed in the difficult world of hospitality.

Two restaurants I've eaten in stand out for the quality of their aperitif offer, and I'm going to name and celebrate them. They're very different restaurants in style and geography but they shared a single assumption: that one would want to relax and chat over a drink before being shown to table.

Photo courtesy of The White Peacock
On a busy Saturday evening in Leicester, we were taken by friends to dinner at The White Peacock. We were greeted like old friends by the front of house manager, a warm and smiling woman who reminded me of my Dad's aunt. Auntie Mary had a huge heart for love and relished visits from the younger members of the family. If she'd had a slinkier dress and an Italian accent, she could have been here before me! After a few minutes of chat, and perhaps spotting more customers arriving, she simply said "Shall we?" and motioned us into the cocktail bar. She gave us leather-bound drinks menus and left us to chat. I decided to be a little naughty and ask for something that wasn't listed, a Negroni. "Ah! A fine, Italian classic: of course, sir!" I have to say, the Negroni that came - and I watched as a very young bartender made it without reference to any book or advice and garnish it with the traditional half-slice of orange - was the best I've ever been served. The food menu came with the drinks, and we were left long enough for our conversation to drift and meander over our choices before the order was taken.

Price isn't any guarantee of quality when it comes to a restaurant's aperitif offer. At a restaurant we visited a few months ago, a high-end bistro that is part of a chain, I asked for a chilled, dry sherry. That should not have been too challenging for a restaurant of that quality. What came was warm and as thick as treacle. Even before I'd tasted it, I knew it wasn't going to be dry. When I pointed this out, the waiter replied "It's the only sherry we have, sir!" If the White Peacock was all about the warm welcome, this restaurant was about chiding us for not behaving. I found it hard to believe that that chain carries only the sweetest sherry and concluded the wait staff did not know what they were selling. There was going to be no point asking for recommendations. Such is the power of a bad aperitif experience to colour your view of the whole dinner.

Our aperitif at The Black Swan at Oldstead
The second restaurant I'll name is Tommy Bank's Black Swan at Oldstead. This time, there was a quiet about the place when we arrived. We were invited to take a seat by the fire and offered a drinks menu. The selection was extensive, featuring some unique and unusual drinks as well as more familiar ones. We made our selection and sat back to relax and consider what we were about to experience. Banks has two restaurants in North Yorkshire, and the Black Swan is the one at which he holds a Michelin star. It offers only a tasting menu, so there were no choices to make, but we were still given a printed menu. Banks clearly understands that people want a souvenir of such an exquisite experience! Handing us a menu gave the waiter an opportunity to clarify that the first dish would be served to us in the bar, before we took our table. A small and very tasty dish with a pre-dinner drink: more or less the definition of aperitif. This being Tommy Banks, though, the dish was startling in it's quality and inventiveness: a salt-baked Jerusalem artichoke filled with cheese custard and topped with 'scales' of pickled artichoke and dusted with shallot powder.

The aperitif experience at The White Peacock was all about the quality and warmth of the welcome. Everything about it, from the friendly chat at the door to only being given the food menu when the cocktails arrived, spoke of being made to feel at home. There would be no rush; nothing would be too much trouble; they were pleased we had come. At The Black Swan, the aperitif spoke of care and peace - a moment of reflection at the end of a long drive and the beginning of a very special occasion. Both experiences told us the meal that followed would be worth our time and expense.

The super front-of-house team at the White Peacock

I shouldn't have to eat at a Michelin-starred restaurant to be well furnished with an aperitif. All it takes is for restaurants to assume, just like those I've named do, that customers want to sit and relax over a drink while they prepare for a great dinner. With care, the aperitif becomes part of that great dinner and encourages diners to linger, enjoy and - importantly - spend.

Links:  and 
Thank you to both establishments.

Next time: home-made aperitif drinks


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