Last week I was invited to meet some friends who were visiting from out of town. It was suggested that we eat at Cosmo, a restaurant I’d not really heard of. I was the first to arrive and was asked to wait in the lobby. At this request I’d thought we had clearly set our dining goals very high. The restaurant was well lit, richly decorated and had two maître d’s.
It wasn’t until being shown to our table did I notice a) the vastness of the place, b) a gargantuan array of self service Bain Marie’s, c) how full the place was and d) the mix bag of people electing to eat there. It appeared that many people had dressed up for the ocassion, most as family get together; there was even a surprise 40th birthday party.
At this point a wave of joyful greed washed over me. I usually avoid places like this as the emphasis is placed on how much you can eat and very little on creating a joyful ambiance. But on this occasion I’d paid my £13.50 and I was going to eat my quota and more.
Armed with my plate I set off. The agenda (and you need an agenda) was to eat my way through the different geographical regions on offer: India, China, Malaysia, Italy and the U.K. (roast). I avoided the U.K. and Italy as these are staple regulars of mine. Similarly I avoided dishes that I’d previously experienced out or judged too safe; your korma and sweet and sour chicken etc.
It was genuinely an exciting experience and I was ecstatic to try foods I wouldn’t have usually risked if ordering solely as a main. Cosmo even had a tasting area, encouraging its diners to attempt different dishes.
As I went round with my plate eagerly eying up the 150 dishes it did seem that lots of people were opting for something fried with chips. However people were requesting fish portions at the ‘cooked to order’ bar or alternating between the obvious and the adventurous. It’s worth mentioning that there was only one Bain Marie holding chips, ten for Indian options and at least twenty for Chinese dishes.
I worked my way through a shameful (impressive) three plates. I felt people averaged two, heeding the Cosmo slogan along the lines of love food hate waste.
Dessert was a different story. The youngsters particularly loved the sweet counter, bathing their choices in two types of chocolate.
Small portions of dessert were made up, a great way of preventing customers from accidental overindulgence. Surprisingly it was the fruit bar that had depleted its stock by the time I got there. By the time I’d returned to my table friends had either finished dessert or were still finishing their mains.
The social dining experience was very disjointed because of this. I believe our table of 7 sat down together for a total of 30 minutes throughout the 2hour duration of our stay; someone was always off on the hunt for more dishes.
So what does this experience say about our food culture?
1) value for money – ridiculously cheap especially if you eat 3 plates.
2) a diverse range people want value for money. Even those who look like they could afford a lot more.
3) people can (and do) choose healthy options even when presented with more exciting unhealthy choices.
4) the restaurant encourages customers to try new foods.
5) the restaurant encourages moderation.
6) modest eaters are susseptable to overindulgence.
7) diners will try to eat the equivalent of the bill.
8) value is placed on food and not experience (money versus quality).
I believe Cosmo did a great job at catering for its customers. I felt it pushed people to experience foreign cuisine and moderated unhealthy choices.
Unless you or your group are able to exercise control on when and how long to fill your plates for this style of dining clearly depletes the group experience. The restaurant was busy and full of excited chatter, not ideal credentials for a long awaited catch up. It is this element that worries me…
are we placing food quantity over a quality group experience?