THE mini crisis that hit the restaurant trade about three years ago just won't go away. And nowadays it's not so mini. If you want to know how bad it is, visit areas like La Lonja or Santa Catalina, especially Calle Fábrica and the surrounding streets. There are dozens of restaurants in both of these central parts of town and they used to be packed, even on weekdays. Nowadays there are very few places that have a full house during the week. Those who manage to fill the tables on a Friday and Saturday night think they are doing very well. It's the same all over town. Although there are some restaurants that still do good business on any night of the week, most of them are feeling the draught. And for some it's not so much a draught as a gale. Some very good restaurants have closed. Others are losing money, but are still managing to hang on. Some restaurant owners are breaking even and are wondering if they should look for some other kind of business. Yet others have got out and are now doing something else in the food trade. No one is immune. One restaurateur who is hanging in and hoping that the crisis will end sooner rather than later, is in a precarious situation despite having a clientele that is mainly well off. So even people without real money problems are also eating out less than they used to. One restaurant owner, who opened up only a few months ago, went into an office to visit friends and said: “If any of you want a restaurant, you can have mine for nothing.” He didn't mean it, but it was an indication of how downhearted he was with the whole situation. Other restaurant owners are trying desperately to get the customers back. I went to have a look at one place that opens only at lunchtime and does an 8-euro help-yourself buffet meal. The dishes that were laid out on the serving table looked good for the price. I asked a woman who looked like the owner if it was necessary to book. “Not at the moment,” she said, “but you may have to by next week.” She then handed me a flyer that announced a four-for-the-price-of-three deal: if four people have the buffet meal, only three pay. In other words, it works out at six euros a head. The buffet meal at eight euros looks like a bargain, but in order to stimulate a little business the owner is reducing the price by 25 per cent. This has the ring of desperation about it.
THERE is no recession in Spain. People are earning even more money than a year ago, yet they are eating out less. Those who used to eat at a restaurant three times a week now do so only on a Friday or a Saturday. The restaurants have only themselves to blame for this situation. With the advent of the euro, they immediately upped prices all round. So did everyone else. Compare supermarket prices with what they were three years ago. Pork spare ribs, for instance, have almost tripled in price. A menú del día in the centre of Palma used to cost around 600 ptas. Nowadays you have to look hard to find one for less than 7.50 euros (1'245 ptas). Just over double. A dish of pasta seldom cost more than 600 ptas. Today, very ordinary restaurants charge 9-12 euros for very ordinary pastas. That's the equivalent of 1'500-2'000 ptas. For a dish of pasta. If restaurant owners are really anxious to get their customers back they could do so at a stroke. All they have to do is reach an agreement on prices and then introduce it en bloc. That agreement would entail a return to prices before the advent of the euro. A return to the 600 ptas menú del día (call it four euros), a return to the 600 ptas dish of pasta (call it four euros). A return, in other words, to decent non-abusive prices. They would hold those prices for a year and then introduce increases in accordance with official inflation rates. Does that sound like a bitter pill to swallow? Of course it is, but it's better than the current alternative. Restaurant owners have killed the golden goose and it's not going to do a phoenix and come back to life. So it's up to them to find some kind of solution to their self-inflicted problem. Despite the crisis and the closures, there are still many wannabe restaurant owners who think they have the magic touch, so they keep opening new places. One of the most recent new eateries is actually decades old, but it has a new owner.
IT'S the restaurant attached to the Plaza Olivar market and it has always been one of my favourites. New owners took it over about a year ago and introduced a different menu and a more creative kind of cuisine. Until then, Majorcan and Spanish regional cooking had reigned supreme. I actually liked the new style of cooking, but it obviously didn't go down well with the regulars, because the restaurant closed after a short time. Now it has reopened with a menu that has gone back to Spanish regional cooking. Which is never a bad idea, because that has been my favourite kind of food since way back. But the new owner doesn't seem to know that there's a bit of a crisis in the restaurant trade. Nor does he have a natural talent for establishing friendly contact with his customers. At least, he didn't manage it with us. The main problem was that only about a dozen dishes were actually on that night because, he eventually said, next day they were closed and he didn't want to buy in a lot of food he wasn't going to need. That would have been fair enough, if he had admitted it right from the start. But instead, he let us order a wide variety of dishes before going off to the kitchen every time and coming back to say that particular dish wasn't on. They didn't even have any mussels. He's within 50 yards of the fish market, yet didn't even have mussels.
EVENTUALLY, after going to the kitchen several times, he came back with a hand-written list of about a dozen dishes. That, he finally admitted, was what they had. But why didn't he produce that list right from the start? Then we would have both known what was on offer and we could have got on with the ordering without all that not very pleasant hassle. But even so, there would have been complaints. I asked for our fried cap roig (scorpion fish) to be undercooked rather than overdone, but it came well and truly fried. There were four small thin slices, a scanty pile of very good french fries, and a little mound of excellent fried red peppers. But this added up to a small serving and the price was 15.15 euros, which is just over 2'500 ptas. That is not the right price for such a dish at a time when the restaurant business is having a tough time. Because of the general mix-up over those dishes that weren't even on the menu, I inadvertently ended up ordering two kinds of chops with the same garnish, something I would never have done under normal circumstances. That wouldn't have been so bad if both lots of chops were very good. But they weren't. Our little suckling pig chops, which should have been soft and tender, were fried for so long in very hot oil that they were like completely dried-out brittle sticks. Breaded lamb chops were tender and in both cases the tumbet garnish was good. But that was no compensation.
l This was a disappointing evening mainly because the owner didn't tell us frankly that the menu had been reduced to about a dozen dishes. It would have been so much better if he hadn't tried to bluff his way out of a situation that we would have understood. And the cook will have to do something about those suckling pig chops. Most of us want that kind of chop to be soft and tender, not fried over a high heat until dried out and brittle. But I'll give them a second try in a year's time.
l Restaurant Mercat de l'Olivar, Plaza del Olivar (on the right of the main entrance to the market), Palma. Tel: 971-721162. Open for lunch from Monday to Saturday and for dinner on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. It also functions as a café from 8am.