Eating at a new restaurant can be a great experience, so why, when you visit a few months later, have the standards dropped? Photo: Shutterstock
Mouthing Off
by Andrew Sun
Mouthing Off
by Andrew Sun

Why do new restaurants go stale over time? They open with great food and service, then, a few months later, meh

  • The first time you visit a new restaurant the meal is memorable, with the staff pulling out all the stops
  • When you return a few months later everything is a little stale, and the quality has dropped off. Why?

How many times have you heard friends say this about a restaurant: “It’s not as good now as it was when they first opened.”

I hear this refrain a lot, expressed both by food lovers who try every new restaurant that opens, as well as casual diners who only eat at new places after their friends recommend them. But is it true that new restaurants are like a new car – doomed to deteriorate as soon as they roll off the line?

When customers are impressed and surprised by a meal, they tend to exaggerate that experience in their heads. Over time the rose-coloured prism gets exponentially rosier. Think about the movies you saw in high school that you thought were genius works. Now when you view Ferris Bueller’s Day Off again, you probably don’t consider it among cinema’s greatest achievements.

Restaurants are living creatures that change and evolve constantly. A great meal six months ago doesn’t mean that restaurant’s service will still be good now. The veteran manager might have left, a new line cook could just be starting, or they’re trying out an unknown, cheaper supplier. Industry people often say that starting a restaurant is easy, maintaining consistency is hard.

Standards can slip pretty quickly in food and service once a place has been open for a while. Photo: Shutterstock

To launch a new establishment is the proverbial chase for many chefs, like trying to woo and seduce a new love interest. It’s a common obsession. Suddenly, the heart takes over from the head. They want to use only the best ingredients, install top name equipment, and serve food on the nicest plates and tableware.

When the establishment opens, everyone is blown away. The place is full, the reviews are great, and, for a moment, it’s the toast of the town. Then a few months go by, the number crunchers review the books and all that effort turns out to be not as profitable as everyone assumed. So everything gets reassessed.

Coke addict: why I drank cola during a three-Michelin-star meal

Maybe the kitchen starts cutting corners. Portions shrink a bit. Parmigiano Reggiano is replaced by Grana Padano. A lower grade of beef is ordered. Perhaps the line-caught wild salmon is swapped out for cheaper farmed fish.

Just as likely to derail restaurants are personal conflicts. Clashes between chefs and owners are common. Before opening, everyone has a mutual goal to focus on, but such marriages don’t always last. Irreconcilable differences are more common than you might expect. Industry studies have suggested 60 per cent of restaurants don’t make it past the first year and 80 per cent go out of business within five. Those that manage to continue have to adapt and change with the time, like everyone else.

Even if everything goes right commercially, maintaining a high bar is hard work. In Hong Kong, a successful restaurant inevitably means a greedy landlord raising the rent. Keeping staff happy is also tough. Talented servers and cooks are always in high demand and many will jump ship for an extra few hundred dollars a month elsewhere.

That wild, line-caught salmon you had on your first visit is now a farmed fish. Photo: Shutterstock

 Then there’s the constant competition. New restaurants open all the time and easily bored Hong Kong diners always want something or some place new. When some patrons say a place is not as good, I suspect they’re not actually talking about the food or the service. They’re just bored and want a new hang-out. These are different critics than the snobs who will downgrade any restaurant for being too popular, just so they can feel superior.

Ultimately, is it reasonable to expect perfection from any restaurant over an extended period of time? Chefs are only human. The fact is, infallibility is tough to achieve. Everyone is prone to occasional operating kinks and service hiccups.

What I want from most places is a modicum of consistency and a conscious effort to avoid complacency. After all, I’m sure “not as good as he used to be” is something other people say about me.