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What's cooking?

Ian Nash went to Carshalton to try out the college restaurant and found himself surrounded by pensioners

Alice Waite pointed to her plate and asked: "What do you call that, young man?" "Your starter, madam," the bemused waiter replied.

"My starter? " said the feisty septuagenarian, rising to her feet. "Three lettuce leaves wouldn't start a slug." She upped and left.

Restaurant managers would do well to pursue her and all the other Alices and Alans deserting in droves. Had the the hapless waiter chased after Alice, he would probably got the wrong end of the crab-stick. Surely, all these folk marching down to their local college are going for adult cookery classes?

Not a bit of it. They are turning-up in increasing numbers for the cuisine - and for more than a furtive glance at the excellent wine lists.

College restaurants are replacing their high street and county town equivalents as the place of choice for lunch, offering a la carte quantities at plat du jour prices.

Six college restaurants visited recently by TES staff told the same story. The latest was the Nightingales Training Restaurant at Carshalton College. A high proportion of customers, but not all, tend to be local, retired people. The restaurant is usually full and is often booked out completely by local business.

Lunch is pound;5.99 for three courses plus coffee. Dianne Rosen, chief executive of the Sutton Business Federation, insists it is not just a watering hole for the over-seventies.

"Nightingalesis the members' No 1 choice for ambience, quality and service. If we suggest holding our lunches anywhere else, there is uproar! We fully intend to maximise the opportunities for the local business community."

On the day I visited, the rest of the diners were local retired people. They all describe themselves as "regulars".

"A friend told me about Nightingales a few months ago and I've been a regular ever since. It's the quality of the food and service that I like," said one woman. "The staff and students are so pleasant and the decor is beautifully done."

Another commented: "The portions are just right. At most restaurants they're either way too big or far too small."

A male friend added: "The variety of food is so much better than you get in high-street restaurants. And the price means that we can come at least three times a month."

His wife had enjoyed the service so much, they went there for her eightieth birthday celebrations.

But the picture is more complex than an exodus from high-street cafes and brasseries. Colleges setting standards are training many of tomorrow's chefs, waiters and restaurateurs. Companies seeking convention and party venues will have quality of food and service rather than cost in mind.

So what are the elusive qualities that make a good training restaurant? The competition we are launching in next month's issue aims to find out.

Competition: College Manager Training Restaurant of the Year. Details in next month's issue.

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