Saturday, May 09, 2009

Don’t mess with success

When I first moved to this town more than five years ago, there were two “white tablecloth” restaurants, both worthy of note: Dale’s Place and Chaplan’s.

Dale’s Place was situated in a charming old house on the “right” side of the highway (meaning the side nearest the beach), conveniently located next to a traffic light that allowed patrons easy access to the side street parking. You couldn’t get a table without a booking, the menu offerings ranged from the prosaic to the exotic, and preparation was sublime. It was the kind of place where you reserved a table for celebrations, special dinners, or to treat yourself to a fine meal accompanied by fine wines, followed by a shock to your credit card.

Chaplan’s, located on the other side of the highway but too convenient to a posh suburb to be ignored, had a different sort of menu and somewhat more subdued pricing. It didn’t require bookings, but it was not uncommon to wait at the bar for a table as it was always busy. The innovative menu…tempura prawn or mezze platter appetisers, champagne sorbet for dessert, for example…kept our taste buds alert and our wallet open.

You may have noticed that I have referred to both establishments in the past tense… There is a reason for that: Dale’s has been consigned to the mists of history and Chaplan’s is barrelling headlong down the same path. In both cases, the owners and innovators of the venues have sold up, taken their profits and run, leaving ignorant Philistines in control of what were once fine dining establishments.

We actually ate at Dale’s shortly after the handover: we had no idea Dale was no longer at the helm and we were baffled at the unexpectedly poor service, puzzling menu additions and deletions, and the decline in the quality of the food. We never went back, feeling we had been charged premium prices for seriously substandard food and insulting service. Obviously we were not the only patrons who felt this way, as Dale’s began a slow, agonizing, embarrassingly public decline. It stood on a prominent corner where we were forced to witness its painful demise each time we drove past. At first, we noticed that the veranda, an area usually packed with patrons, was without diners. Then one of us remarked on the emptiness of the parking lot. A deli…which I visited and found virtually without stock…opened in part of the unused space, and then a piano bar sign was prominently posted on the outside of what was once a fine dining establishment. The deli morphed into a café, and then a gift shop, and big signs offering specials went up on the august façade of what was now a failed restaurant. Drive by today and you will find a small office building where, only five years ago, a venerable old residence housed a first rate restaurant that delighted the palates of local fine food aficionados.

A couple of months ago we visited Chaplan’s and the first thing I noticed was a change in the menu: many of the things I liked were missing. Hubby soon remarked on the indifferent service and, reminding me of Dale’s, wondered aloud if the place had been sold. Last night we returned and we noted that the place was uncharacteristically empty for a Friday. We took a table, ordered drinks, and opened the menu only to find it had been stripped of everything I liked and nothing new and tantalizing had been inserted to take up the slack. In fact, only one new menu item was discovered…an appetizer that, somehow unsurprisingly, had been misspelled. We paid for our drinks and left, but not until determining that, indeed, the restaurant had been sold and the new owners had reinvented the menu to “personalize” it a little. We won’t be back and Hubby opines that in a year or less, Chaplan’s will either have changed hands again or will be as defunct as Dale’s.

Obviously the new owners of Dale’s Place, an Italian couple, knew their business was in trouble. They implemented a dizzying array of changes in at attempt the stem the flow of red ink, all to no avail. But did they ever bother to ponder the reason for the decline and target their efforts in that direction? I don’t think so…and I think if they had, they could have turned it around.

You see, Dale’s was well-regarded for its menu, in particular its game dishes, local seafood and “Cape cuisine”…local Cape Town traditional foods. Our disastrous last meal there revealed many of the original dishes missing and, in their place, Italian food. Sorry, but Italian food is not what Dale’s patrons came to eat, so changing the menu was a really stupid thing to do. Since the new owners retained Dale’s kitchen staff, it would have been a very simple thing to keep the menu intact and the people whose patronage made Dale’s a local landmark would continue to come in to eat it. But they had to put their own personal mark on the place and introduce dishes that were not in keeping with the restaurant’s traditional cuisine. They took away things the patrons liked and substituted things they didn’t like…Italian food, aside from pizza, is not a big hit here in South Africa…and the patrons reacted predictably…they went away and stayed away and the restaurant eventually had to close its doors. They bought one of the most successful, well-regarded restaurants in Cape Town and killed it, all because of ego.

Sadly, the same thing seems to be happening at Chaplan’s, and I don’t understand why. If the venue is successful, if it has a following and the patrons like the food, why change it? Sure, a slow introduction of new things may ultimately add some favourites to the menu, but to take over a thriving restaurant and immediately change the menu, to remove customer favourites and substitute unknowns, is just business suicide! It is arrogant and stupid and counter-productive and business buyers who engage in such foolishness deserve the financial drubbing they eventually take.

Common sense would dictate that the diners who mob a restaurant specializing in prime steaks and game meat are not there for Italian food! If your heart is set on running an Italian restaurant, buy one of those that is in the tank and make things better, or open an Italian joint from scratch! And in a more eclectic venue like Chaplan’s, cheapening the plates by removing garnishes and sauces, and forgetting the importance of presentation, serves only to make patrons nervous about the restaurant’s future and impels them to seek new places to eat. Changing the menu to “inject a personal touch,” as we were informed at Chaplan’s, is a really dim-witted and egotistical thing to do: if the restaurant is turning a profit on the existing menu, in what world does significantly changing that menu equate to increased revenues? People are funny about their food, and when you change it…especially when you take away the things they like…they don’t cheerily embrace your substitutions, they go find another place where they can get what they want instead of what you want to give them!

As Jeff Foxworthy likes to say, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Good bye, Dale’s Place…we miss you. Good bye, Chaplan’s…we already miss the place you used to be, the menu you once had. Let’s just hope that Alexia’s doesn’t change hands next!

Click on the wings!

and look for me under the Violet Burroughs tab

1 comment:

  1. We've "lost" a few of our favorite places over the years and it is always sad when they don't seem to be easily replaced for their unique/excellent offerings. The restaurant business is sure not one that I would ever venture into - despite my idea of Mama's Soul Kitchen (a place with food that mama used to cook, simple and GOOD stuff!)


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