As a student I once went with a group of my fellows to an ‘eat-all-you-can’, fixed price, buffet-style restaurant. Being students, naturally, we recognised an opportunity to feed copiously at modest cost but we also saw it as a challenge. Although it was long ago, I can remember the stony expression on the proprietor’s face as we left having destroyed his hopes of a profit for that evening. Since those early, innovative days of the eat-all-you-can business model they have introduced some measures to safeguard against loss. Nothing as crass as the banning of students - just a few subtleties such as smaller plates, overpriced drinks and cheaply-produced dishes. Oh, and the general adoption of the less challenging ‘eat-all-you-like’ slogan.
Nevertheless such restaurants may still be seen as offering good value and, in these times of dire economic hardship, they might reasonably be expected to do well. The theory known as “squeezing the middle” should apply: eateries in Mayfair will be totally immune to recession but middle ranking restaurants will lose their impoverished customers to cheaper establishments. Some anecdotal evidence, however, suggests this is not happening. On the street next to mine two of the four eat-all-you-like establishments have just closed down. Have even they become unaffordable? Are people buying ready-made takeaway meals instead? Have they resorted to cooking at home, finally making use of those celebrity cook-books they bought and stashed, unopened, on their shelves? Perhaps the extremely hard-up are contemplating war-time recipes for making soup from potato peelings. The level of desperation can be gauged by this sign seen outside a Chinese restaurant:
Eat all you like buffet.
Not mean all day buffet.
You no come stay 4 hours.
You eat - you go home.
While it is widely accepted that we in Britain owe a debt of gratitude to immigrants for spicing up our culture with their cuisines, I wonder when the same level of recognition will be accorded to their musical input. Last week I was at a gig with a Middle Eastern bias. The musicians were two oud players and two percussionists (known as Double Duo), virtuosi with a repertoire nicely balanced between the traditional and the contemporary. The audience was very small yet that did not dishearten them nor cause them to play with any less enthusiasm. When I spoke to the performers afterwards I discovered that three of them are exiles from their homelands, hence the sublty internationalised appeal of their sound. We discussed how they might attract larger audiences and I suggested they might include a Mediterranean mezze feast in the ticket price.
A few days later, on a grey and blustery morning, I was about to turn the corner into one of the city’s squares when my nostrils detected a hint of something familiar yet unexpected. Our sense of smell may be considered the least useful or essential of the five, yet it has an almost mysterious power to evoke people, events and places and, that morning, it evoked for me the Grand Bazaar of Marrakesh. Sure enough, when I rounded the corner I walked straight into a Moroccan souk. It wasn’t quite as bustling as they generally are on home ground but it was fully stocked with all the usual colourful rugs and scarves, malodorous leatherware, hand-beaten metalwork and carved wooden boxes. The stall holders, however, were untypically restrained. Either they had taken a short course in English reticence before coming over or they were dispirited by the dearth of customers.
I can think of only one reason why they are over here: it’s because we are not over there. The recession, combined with tourists’ fear of ‘unstable’ Arab countries, has left them bereft of customers so they have resorted to bringing their slippers, rugs, bags and trinkets to us. It’s a pity they didn’t bring some of their food as well.