Monday 6 June 2011

Restaurant or Tourist Trap?(Restaurant Botin, Madrid)

Located in Madrid, just behind Plaza Mayor, Restaurant Botin, founded in 1725, is listed as the world’s oldest restaurant. Frequently visited by Ernest Hemmingway, it has become a must-visit for tourists everywhere. The holding of the title “world’s oldest restaurant” was enough to intrigue me and I managed to secure an elusive reservation for lunch.

Arriving at the restaurant about 30 minutes prior to opening, I started to become very unsure about whether it was a wise decision to dine there. Tour buses were unloading their large groups of would-be diners all clutching their guidebooks and cameras; a line already forming outside the door. The menu posted in the restaurant’s window was decidedly bland and considerably more expensive than any other restaurant serving comparable food in Madrid. For every eager Travel Channel host I have seen dine at Restaurant Botin, and every glowing review in Lonely Planet or Rick Steeves, there are dozens of scathing reviews in food blogs.

I was in a quandary; I should want to eat there if for no other reason than the history, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. Which made me wonder: why is it that I have no objection to visiting tourist attractions but can’t seem to want to dine at them? I happily queued to climb the Eiffel Tower and list Disneyworld as one of my favourite places on earth, both swarming with tourists. Why is food different? Why do I consider myself above it all when I am no different to anyone else in that line…or am I?

Upon careful reflection, I think I have found the answer. Tourist attractions manage to increase the number of patrons without changing the experience. China’s Great Wall is unchanging, constant. So is the Eiffel Tower or Tower of London. Sure the touts are lurking outside selling hideous souvenirs and there is now the ever present gift shop at every corner. Food, however, is different. It is impossible to vastly increase the number of patrons at a restaurant without sacrificing some of the experience. For restaurant Botin, it means opening at hours that are unheard of by most Madrid establishments (dinner starts at 8pm) and turning the tables as quickly as possible. They would be unable to maintain the charm and standard known by so many decades ago because in order to cope with demand, it has changed from “restaurant”, to “tourist attraction”.

For me, it is and must always be about the food above everything else. The restaurant can be the oldest in the world, or have the best view or some other “gimmick” but if the menu isn’t great, and the price fair for the standard offered, I’m not interested. And perhaps that is what separates me from the croc-wearing, cargo-panted tourists lining up at Botin today. They were there for the experience alone, and for them, that was enough.

Who knows? Perhaps today I walked away from what could have been a fabulous meal. It will be a very long time before I’m given the opportunity to reconsider.

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