Good food isn't the only ingredient of an enjoyable dining experience, says Carol Wilson.
What makes you choose a restaurant? The food obviously - but what about the location, seating, how far apart the tables are, service, the staff in general, the surroundings, the general ambience and of course the price?
Restaurants have to make us want to go there, whether for a quick lunch, dinner with friends or a special occasion meal. But what makes one better than the other? Do you follow the recommendations (or otherwise) of food critics' reviews or food guides?
Personally I go for personal recommendations from friends and colleagues, but if I'm in a new town or abroad, I generally choose a place that's busy - especially if it's full of locals, always a good sign that the food is freshly prepared and will taste good.
What I find off-putting is drab, tired décor, ear-splitting background music and tables packed too tightly in a small space; some restaurants are so keen to squeeze in as many diners as possible, that on occasions I've sat so close to the next table that I could have joined in their conversation!
A huge menu in a smallish restaurant isn't a good omen either - it usually means the food is bought in. I once stopped at a remote country 'gastropub' in the highlands of Scotland where an item on the menu was chicken breast in a wild mushroom sauce. My husband asked for his chicken without the sauce and was told this wasn't possible, so it was obviously boil in the bag!
A stop at a another country fine dining pub had a menu full of bizarre and outlandish dishes. The chef obviously thought he was another Heston Blumenthal in the making, but unfortunately had confused novelty with innovation and used weird combinations of flavours and ingredients just for the sake of it. But whereas the talented Heston's dishes are well thought out and meticulously researched, tested and developed, this menu clearly was not and offered delights such as Smoked haddock and Roquefort fishcakes with a peach and raspberry sauce... yes really!
My favourite restaurants have tasty, freshly cooked food by a proper chef (no bought in ready-prepared meals), are value for money, have a relaxed, unhurried atmosphere, welcoming staff and friendly and knowledgeable service. Good restaurants deserve to be rewarded with our custom.