Food we all love it, some of us a little too much. Visiting a restaurant and having someone cook a meal for you is one of the great pleasures in life. A pleasure we all look forward to, particularly when on holidays. I think it is a primeval feeling and harks back to the comfort we felt when our parents cooked for us.
Before I get into this story I should make it clear that I have owned a number of restaurants in tourist related areas and have had the benefit of seeing the industry from the inside.
Now all tourist towns have more than their fair share of restaurants and cafes which in theory are designed to cater for all of us but in practice tend to gravitate towards the tourists. Why, because of money and ease of doing business. Not only are the tourists a captive audience but they are also not likely to be return customers. These basic facts breed very bad habits in many restaurateurs. After many years of travelling around the world the Wizard has identified a number of tell tale signs which demonstrate that the owner of the restaurant is one of those types who has decided to take the line of least resistance to serve up anything they can get away with.
So, what are these signs? Well the three majors are; photos of the food on display boards and in a menu which is in a thousand languages; a pushy person standing out the front who won't take no for an answer when you try and walk past and most importantly a menu which has every cuisine in the world . Some would argue that location is a giveaway and that anything which is close to a major tourist transport hub will be terrible but in my view this is not as reliable as the above mentioned indicators.
Dubrovnik has more than its fair share of places which are tourist restaurants being overpriced and under delivered. The Old City has an abundance of them and until recently I thought that Saint Mark's Square in Venice had the world record for overcharging for a coffee until I visited the first establishment on the left hand side as you enter Stradun.
Then there are the ‘Hollow Men’ restaurants. You may be aware of the famous line in the poem of this name by T S Elliot “ that's the way the world ends not with a bang but a whimper”. These are restaurants which start in a reasonable manner but quickly turn into cynical exercises in reducing portion sizes and disregarding quality control. Two great examples of this type of restaurant come to mind. Around a year ago a restaurant opened in the “CBD” district and this was a place where I had previously enjoyed a number of honest meals. Unfortunately on what was to become my last ever visit I was served a miserable plate of the cheapest and smallest frozen squid available. To add insult of injury, l they were barely defrosted and the meal was stone cold when it arrived. My most recent exposure to food abuse occurred on my birthday. I was lucky enough to be taken to a longstanding seafood restaurant by the water in Gruz harbour at Lapad. As it is a not inexpensive place my level of anticipation was high - only to be totally deflated by a seafood grill which was prepared and cooked an hour before we arrived ( it wasn't a Japanese restaurant) accompanied by ten year old French fries and uncooked rice. The restaurant’s only saving grace was that the staff were friendly and professional - a rare commodity in Dubrovnik at the best of times let alone in the summer season.
The big excuse by owners for quality problems in this town is the shortage of trained staff, whether it be in the kitchen or out the front. Well I don't buy this rubbish. If you can't find a chef, or a waiter who can crack a smile, don't open! Certainly don't employ a short order cook and then try and pass an expensive meal off as having been prepared by a chef or let some manically depressed intellectual pygmy take the customer’s orders.
Then there's the question of diversity. The food offering for the great majority of establishment in the Old City is pizza and a couple of grilled dishes. To compound the problem all of the places are the same and offer which I call ‘one speed pizza’. That is cheese, cheese and a little more cheese. If you are lucky you might get a very lonely olive in the middle or some unfortunate canned seafood or processed meat. There is the well known man about town and editor of this newspaper who will tell anyone who will listen that he is personally responsible for introducing the Hawaiian style pizza to Dubrovnik. The story goes that he suggested to one owner to back off the cheese and put some pineapple on the offering and as soon as the competitors saw an new idea they all copied it. The dish has had a varied history, not coming from Hawaii but rather being invented by a Greek Canadian at his pizzeria in Ontario. Recently a story appeared in the press where the President of Iceland was quoted saying he would like to ban pineapple as a pizza topping. With any luck our President will try the same trick. Here's the thing, it's a great shame that the restaurant owners don't get out of the country and see what's on offer in most of the major cities in the world. Come to think of it, it would only take one to go out and the rest would copy. Forget the Naples inspired cheese slab, people are using all sorts of ingredients to produce wonderful pizzas. It's not that hard to show a bit of imagination. The silly thing is that a lot of these raw materials being used internationally can be grown in the back yard here in Dubrovnik or are readily available. Rocket salad, butternut pumpkin, feta cheese, figs nuts etc, etc.
Even when someone does try and introduce a more exotic form of cuisine like Indian or Korean they fall into the ‘hollow man‘ trap of charging tourist prices for underwhelming food. This is not to say, however, that occasionally people do get it right. In the Old City the Bosnian restaurant is not cheap but at least you are served a quality meal. Similarly the Japanese restaurant in Lapad is the real deal. Sprinkled around town there are other places which have opened in the last few years which serve a world class meal. They are far from the tourist strips in locations where they will be judged by the quality of their products. Relying on locals or referrals from hotels as their primary source of income has a strange way of keeping restaurants honest.
With all this mediocrity in Dubrovnik it is a delight to travel to Zagreb where there has been a veritable explosion in the culinary scene. Every second week a new place seems to open and they are always either international in origin or locals who bring a new slant to the tired old stuff we get here. And just to prove that Croatians can get it really right if they try, the restaurant Monte in Istria has become the first and only restaurant in the country with a Michelin Star. Perhaps some of this new energy will rub off in this town.
The one great ray of hope for the culinary scene in this, and other tourist towns, is the mighty TripAdvisor and other internet reviews. The bad restaurateurs are being called to account and as these avenues are more widely read so will the level of accountability in the industry improve. Food tourism is on the rise and perhaps one day visitors will come to Dubrovnik to not only experience its beauty but also experience some interesting cuisine.
The Wizard of Oz