The world media, hungry for signs of the times, have jumped on the news this week of a Clerkenwell restaurateur who's done away with the notion of menu prices. The papers seem fascinated by the experiment and at least one struggling Irish restaurant has now followed the example. It makes a great anecdote to lighten up the finance section, but what about the food?
Londonist decided to put the Little Bay bistro on Farringdon Road to the lunch test yesterday and see what the pay-what-you-want menu was really worth. A few days after the change and the ground floor was still bustling with TV crews and journalists; fortunately the lower level remained quiet and we were able to settle in. The décor is baroque and then some, building on gold leaf tables and wall paintings of the Sabines with inexplicable extras like a golden mannequin with priapic light bulb attachment. The staff were exceptionally friendly, as one would expect with so much riding on goodwill, and with so many journalists present.
While the food menu was innumerate as advertised, the beverage list was priced. This explains part of the strategy, as bottles of wine should provide some buffer against outright loss. The dishes on offer were mixed European fare: we started with caviar-topped smoked haddock brandade in leek and potato soup as well as a pressed foie gras terrine, then moved on to smoked chicken tagliatelle, duck breast, and poussin with lentils. Despite our fears the portions were of a genuine restaurant size, adding up to quite a substantial trio of lunches. The starters did the job; the caviar made only a whiff of an appearance, but this might have been for the best, as it seemed a very odd pairing with leek and potato soup. While the pasta and meats were prepared well, the sides were more mixed. The "green vegetables" we ordered as an extra side turned out to be just a single head of steamed broccoli. Oddest of all was the duck en croute that came as an accompaniment to the duck breast, though this turned out to be delicious once we got over the redundancy of it. After all of this, the only dessert we could manage with our coffee was a small but rich chocolate bavaroise between us.
This was, by all appearances, a mildly idiosyncratic restaurant even before they tore up the price list, but ultimately run-of-the-mill. On the other hand, the location on Farringdon Road, next to Exmouth Market, places it in the midst of some very notable competition indeed. How well it measures up depends on the price, and that depends on some tricky social psychology. Everything from the friendly staff to the high quality paper bill with its bold fill-in-the-blanks pressures the diner to pay his or her notion of what is expected. Drinking tap water, you could quite legitimately have a three course meal for a penny, but would you do it? Dining in groups adds new pressures and the sorts of bartering that game theorists love to chart out. The problems of bringing a date don't even bear thinking about.
And what of Londonist? We paid what we thought it was worth.