Lunch at the Merchant House costs as much as dinner. It is the same menu, in fact, and this needs tactfully explaining when people phone to book, lest anyone should expect something diminished in either quantity or cost. I like lunches, and really enjoy eating at that time of day, so I am happily surprised at the number of people who think likewise and negotiate the meal with proper gusto.
I understand why those who must work need to remain alert for the afternoon and keep to a glorified snack with spritzer, but I do think there is quite a market out there for those who are not in this sad position. After all, what is so special about the late afternoon that it needs to be spent without a full stomach or good wine?
It follows, therefore, that this restaurant doesn't have any business lunch trade. This is only a minor tragedy in Ludlow as there are very few businesses based here anyway and the nearest large towns are an hour's drive away. But the place does attract "ladies who lunch" - different ladies to those who might lunch in London, of course, as ours will be 20 years older and at least two stones fatter - and we are very fond of them as punters.
The exception to my lunchtime euphoria is, of course, the dread of Sunday lunch. We don't open for it, and it means quite a drive for us, when looking to eat out ourselves, to find some alternative to the inevitable roast topside in packet gravy with 100-year-old Yorkshire pudding. Good roast beef and Yorkshire is, of course, spectacular and one of my favourite dishes, but it has now joined fish and chips as one of the meals you have to cook yourself at home if you are to eat it with any pleasure.
The reason seems to me one of meanness on all sides. The best joints for roasting are rib joints, and topside is no substitute. Sirloin costs as much to buy for roasting as for grilling and has to be priced similarly, but there is a feeling that lunch should, of necessity, cost less, so cheaper joints are enlisted. The punters will not, apparently, pay more, so restaurants attempt to please the market as best they can and this is a pity. There are plenty of good traditional dishes - steak and kidney pudding or lamb hotpot - that are, by definition, cheaper to make, and make properly. Wouldn't it be so much better to see them instead?
Anja and I ventured across to Wales last Sunday to lunch at Llangoed Hall, which provides a first-rate meal - as well as newspapers to read while waiting for the grub. So we are puzzled by AA Gill's continuing contempt for the principality's gastronomic scene in the Sunday Times. Perhaps he hasn't tried the Sunday lunches there, or the weekday treats at the nearby Walnut Tree? n
Next diary from Shaun Hill will be on 23 April
"The customer is always right" has always been drummed into me and, in turn, I have taught my staff the very same theory. But over the past few months there have been occasions when I just haven't been able to grit my teeth and smile.
Take, for example, the lady who wrote to me demanding compensation after having brought 11 children to a birthday party at Spaggo's. She thought it was disgraceful that she had paid £5.95 per child and the party pack had contained only colouring sheets, a competition, a pack of sweets and a balloon. She had not taken into consideration the invitations, use of the restaurant space, a clown to entertain her children, face-painting, pasta collage-making, unlimited soft drinks and a massive ice-cream cake topped with sparklers, also that each child had taken home a bit of pizza in a box, their pasta collage, a party pack and a helium balloon.
I recalled a recent article in the Express on Sunday outlining the cost for organised parties (ranging from £9.30 to £54 per child) and I could no longer bite my tongue. My reply, although polite, outlined a few facts: if the lady in question was to organise this type of function her costs would be in the region of £60 for an entertainer, the face-painter £20 per hour, the hall or venue £25, the food and drink £25, the helium balloons £15, the party packs £10 and the invitations £5. This would have brought the cost for her party to about £160 or £14.50 per child. On top of this she would have had the hassle of organising the party, and the cleaning up. In this case no voucher accompanied my letter.
We have company guidelines on complaints, and generally when one happens the customer has a reason not to be happy. We will always replace an item or take it from the bill and, in an extreme case, we will send a voucher to compensate for a problem. Luckily, over the years such cases have been few and far between.
But the one that makes my blood boil happened just a few weeks ago. Two ladies arrived for lunch on an unusually busy Tuesday. I had come down from the office to give a hand on the bar. The ladies finished their starters and, upon receiving their main courses, complained to the waitress that they had no intention of paying as they had been waiting 45 minutes. We checked the till-read and found that they had received their main courses 23 minutes after sitting down - in fairness, a little slower than usual, but not unreasonable considering they had also had a starter. I am not in the habit of arguing with customers, but my blood was boiling and, unfortunately, battle commenced.
I have to admit that I gained nothing out of the exchange and the ladies left totally unsatisfied. Maybe I should have bitten my tongue, but there are times I'd prefer just not to have them back. The funniest part was one woman's parting comment: she told me her husband had been a chef for 10 years and he had never taken 23 minutes to serve a starter and a main course. He must have worked for McDonald's.
Next diary from Tammy Mariaux will be on 23 April