Food for thought and cutting-edge cuisine

We’ve just had a bank holiday weekend here in the UK, which means one thing. Rain. Except it it didn’t. Rain, that is. Instead – in the southern half of the country at least – the sun came out, the clothes came off (best not to go there) and the ice-cream vans hit the road. It was glorious. And on Sunday, I cycled into the centre of Cambridge to meet a friend for Sunday lunch. I’d found a new venue, and was crossing my fingers for ‘a triumph of hope over experience’ (as Dr Johnson famously said, though he was talking about second marriages). You see, I’ve had some very mediocre, not to mention negative, experiences when it comes to eating out here in sunny Cambridge. There was the waiter who rolled his eyes and sighed when I asked to move from the table he’d sat me at, strategically placed under an arctic air-conditioning unit. The waitress who brought me the wrong order, then claimed I’d made a mistake, not her. And the disastrously undercooked chicken which flew back to the kitchen and returned, overcooked, long after my dining companions had finished their main course. Bad service, it seems, is much easier to deliver than good. You just don’t bother, and the rest takes care of itself. So, then. Hope, experience, triumph. The three words swam around in my head as I pedalled through a glorious spring day, past frolicking kids on verdant meadows, perfectly clipped box hedges, and the obligatory Sunday car-washers, spoodling their pride and joy. And the the lunch? Well, it was a revelation. And a object lesson in customer service, all wrapped up in freshly baked pita bread.

Soup to nuts

What was right about it? In a word, everything. On the menu was:
  • A friendly smile as soon as we stepped in the door.
  • The choice of any free table in the house (rather than an Exocet-style journey to the coldest possible one).
  • Drinks that arrived in record time.
  • An indulgent smile and a convincing ‘no problem’ when I said I wasn’t quite ready to order my main course – followed by a split-second reaction from a second waitress as soon as I subsequently closed the menu (she’d been briefed to keep a watch-out for Mr Slowcoach).
  • Free WiFi, which worked first time (Pret, take note).
  • Food delivered not too soon (suggesting it’s rushed, undercooked or pre-prepared) or too late (forgotten, overcooked or dashed off by overworked staff). And perfect in every detail (quantity, quality, presentation, temperature).
  • Ice cream (chocolate, with chocolate chips and chocolate sauce – yum) magicked out of nowhere, as it wasn’t on the menu.
  • The bill (US: check) that winged its way to our table as if guided by thought alone. With the good news that it all cost a lot less than you might imagine.
  • Another friendly smile and cheery wave to see us on our way.

Wake up and smell the coffee

Was I dreaming? Could it be true? Or had I found the perfect service experience? I had, but this was no accidental experience. It was the result of attention to detail – every detail – and an unwavering focus on customer service. The unstoppable force behind all this was the owner. I could see her, hovering around, always on the lookout. Constantly checking that clients were OK, had their food, weren’t waiting. Smiling and laughing with the waitresses, but still guiding them with gentle determination. The waitresses were all alert, attentive and sensitive to clients. It was an object lesson in customer service. Not any one thing: no Big Idea here, nothing revolutionary, nothing that anybody else couldn’t do. It’s just that the’re not. Doing it, that is. So in a world of bland food, indifferent service and sky-high costs, there’s a restaurant that excels on every front. They’ve been open for two months, the waitress told me, and they’re doing well. No kidding. From what I’ve seen, they’re going to continue that way. They’ve set themselves apart in a crowded market place, becoming that rarest of rare finds – and one you want to tell everybody about. A bit like a sunny bank holiday weekend. Find out more: 
  • Gastronomic gem. Next time you’re in Cambridge, check out The Arches Coffee Shop (Eggs Benedict to die for – I promise you).