There is a restaurant on the port of a small holiday town on the Mediterranean coast near where I live that my wife and I go to as frequently as possible. In reality that may only be about once a month as it’s about a one hour drive and we are quite occupied with our own restaurant business. I tend not to write restaurant reviews, this may be as close as I come to writing one, but I want to illustrate the reasons we keep going back to this particular restaurant.
The coastal town of St Cyprien is well known to tourists with its expanse of golden beaches and renowned harbour and port. During the summer months the town is busy, accommodations are booked out and restaurants and bars are buzzing. Like most tourist destinations there is a strip of restaurants, bars and nightlife, where most people like to be seen, offering the usual tourist interests, mostly centred around the port area and close to the beach. However, the restaurant I am talking about is located a little away from the main drag and more toward the working section of the port near the boatyards.
If you want to get into La Tonnelle, even on a lunchtime in October, you need to reserve in advance. The restaurant is extremely popular with locals and tourists alike. So what makes this restaurant special? I will try to explain.
You have to start with the kerb appeal. It is situated across a small road from the port with great views of all the boats moored up. The terrace is up 5 steps and is glassed in, although all the glass does open giving plenty of fresh air. From the outside there is a well presented blackboard with the day’s menu and a fixed menu stand with the à la carte menu. Through the glass it is possible to see the tables neatly laid with pristine white cloths – but there is nothing pretentious about this restaurant; it just looks welcoming.
Once inside the restaurant you are welcomed and shown to your table. The noise level is always a pleasant chatter – people seem to relax and enjoy themselves – something that appears quite rare in other restaurants.
Let’s talk about the food and menu. The daytime menu is very reasonably priced with a choice normally of 5 or 6 dishes. Everything is fresh, cooked to order and presented neatly. The portions are not huge but by the time you’ve eaten three courses you’ve had sufficient. It is not the kind of food to make you go “Wow”, but you know what you’re going to get. The à la carte menu, as you would expect, contains plenty of fish and seafood dishes.
The service sets this place apart. The maitre d’ is relaxed and has time for everyone. He is the only person to take food orders, thus controlling the influx to the kitchen. There are normally four other servers, all of whom have been employed for some time, to provide food service, drinks and generally keep the place tidy for around 100-120 covers..
The beauty of La Tonnelle is that it operates like a well-oiled machine. When you consider that here in France lunchtime is 12 noon, and pretty much everyone wants to be in a restaurant and seated between 12 and 12.30 before returning to work at 2pm, then coping with a full service of 100 covers is impressive.
Back to the original question of what makes a good restaurant and why do people return. For me it is summed up in one word – consistency. The food is well prepared, well cooked and well presented. It is not exceptional but it is consistent. The service is efficient, friendly and consistent. The establishment is consistently appealing. And the guy in charge is consistently present and has time for everyone, not just an elite group of cronies. The customers create the atmosphere but if they were not relaxed and confident of receiving that consistency then the level of chatter would be much lower and the degree of nervousness much higher.
There is a reason McDonald’s has been so successful – they are consistent across the World! What I am trying to demonstrate is that a restaurant is about an all round experience. We have two expressions in my kitchen – the first is that you are only as good as the last meal you served, and the second is that you can serve the best meal in the world badly and customers will not return but serve a good meal well and people will return.
Unfortunately, due to recent Covid restrictions, La Tonnelle, like all restaurants, has been closed for the past 7 months. They have recently reopened their terrace area and I am very much looking forward to a visit next week.