Perhaps my outing suffered from the staff’s post-Christmas fatigue or maybe I have just got used to service with less flap and more warmth; evenings when you feel that things are being run for your benefit, not the restaurant’s and when someone is clearly delighting in taking ownership of the moment. “Luxury” is a dreadful word that means everything and nothing. But, for me, modern luxury is about good things made simple, genuine and human. And if that means leaving the wine on the table for me to pour when my glass is empty, well, I’ll cope.
Down in the west of England, we went to a fancy revamped estate with a restored Georgian house, now hotel, at its heart – it’s the talk of the county. Everyone will tell you how much money has been spent. But it doesn’t matter whether you grow your own apples or have the best wine cellar for miles if the service flounders like a hapless duck on a frozen pond.
Here goes. We are admonished for arriving a few minutes late (the roads outside are blanketed in treacherous fog) and hustled from cocktail bar to table (“We are very busy tonight and want to make sure you get good service”) to find ourselves in a vast glazed and cold greenhouse. And busy? Most of the night we are the only diners in this room, where we sit with scarves and jackets on to fend off the chill. There’s an air of confusion with the food. And, yes, they do that silly flourish of placing the wine in an ice bucket far from the table but then not serving it (you retrieve the wine). You get the drift. There’s no dead mouse in the soup moment; everything is just a few degrees off.
I speak briefly to the manager who apologises and I agree to drop him a note the next day with some suggestions – and this is when you really see how mechanical this operation is. An email arrives that’s clearly just a template where staff fill in a few details of the latest complaint – you know this because the bits that have been added are in a different font size. The email also sounds like it was penned by a Georgian – earnest and cold; they are “currently investigating the circumstances surrounding your experience”. A two-line “thanks for your feedback” would have been fine.
The world of hospitality is changing rapidly and not just in our big cities. The British countryside once had a reputation for chilly hotels, bad service and a distinct lack of fun. But in the past decade there has been a real shift as pubs have added good restaurants and a new generation of hoteliers has shaken up the sector – look at The Pig group of hotels or the huge success of Soho House with its rural outposts. And then there are the makers – the bakers, wine-makers and farmers – who have reinvigorated local supply chains and weekend markets. But perhaps the thing that unites all of this movement has been a sense of bonhomie and an easing of the old formalities that surround luxury hospitality.
The next day, friends take us for a pub lunch. The place is packed, the temperature cosy. There are dogs, there’s life unfolding; chatty staff. Is that the famous film director having a quiet pint? Yes, it’s oddly a little wellington-boot glam too. And the food is simple and delicious. The rest of life suddenly fades out and you are just left laughing, eating and feeling rather content. And this, you realise, really is a luxury experience. Oh, and the wine is on the table and it turns out I know how to pour it too. Cheers.