Hands up all of you who have endured a black-tie function at a Belfast hotel at some time in your careers? Chances are half the readers of this page have. It’s a rite of passage.
Until you have sat down at the glitteringly dressed tables in a hotel’s ‘banqueting hall’, eaten the three courses of industrial-grade monosodium glutamate and then tried to neutralise the aftertaste with ten pints of Harp and/or vodka tonics, you haven’t qualified for adulthood.
You wouldn’t believe the variety of charities, sports clubs, professional associations and federations that need a big place in which to hold their annual dinners and fundraisers. There are literally hundreds of them up and down the province, from the poshest and most venerable like the Ancient Protectors of the Scrotum of the Brown Bull of Coolie to the secretive Society of Retired Tribute Band Members, and most of them need large venues. (I made both of them up to protect identities. You know who you are.)
The thing is, in order to make money, a hotel’s three-course dinner needs to be very finely costed. I’ve seen such dinners whose cost of ingredients barely touched £1.50 per head and were charged at £30. Whatever your preferred charity, club or professional/trade association, you will have braced yourself for the annual dinner with some nervousness.
Recent dinners — the adviser and I attend a good few each year at various Belfast hotels — have, however, revealed some improvements. Recently, the adviser and I joined friends at the Europa for a local football club’s annual bash and the food was good. Better still was the service. (The service at these dinners used to demand vigilance and lightning reactions — from the diners. Under intense pressure to get 500 bowls of cream of vegetable soup out at the same time, the Frisbee-style flings of the plate across the table and the resulting dry-cleaning bill could spoil the night for those too slow to get out of the way.)
The Shaw’s Bridge Ramada Hotel outside Belfast, which has succeeded in attracting really big functions, has held on to the tradition of fling-and-duck service. Nevertheless, the mass-produced function food has steadily improved in the last two years. We understand there’s no easy way of serving 600 diners without recourse to industrial methods of volume production. But if the food is getting better in the banqueting hall, how come the culinary standards in the hotel’s much more manageable restaurant, in this case the Belfast Bar and Grill, are so rip-your-tongue-out awful?
The BBG is on the first floor of the Ramada and suspicions are immediately alerted by the display of ‘special value’ wines, a bottle of which sits on each table. So dark as to be cavern-like, the BBG restaurant is there for its overnight guests. Anyone flying into Belfast and checking into the Ramada at Shaw’s Bridge would need a lot of time and courage to get back into a taxi and head into town for something decent to eat. Therefore, the tired traveller makes do with the seemingly attractive choice of three restaurants at the hotel: the BBG, Suburbia and Spice Club.
BBG was empty when the adviser and I took our table at 7pm on a Saturday evening, but we were amazed at how busy the place was by the time we left an hour and half later. I will look back on that moment as a lost 90 minutes of my life for years to come.
The ‘butter mussels with basil and Parmesan sauce’ looked the part when they arrived. The mussels appeared big and juicy and local but then revealed themselves to be utterly tasteless. The flavour was absolute zero from the 11 mussels (I counted them), each one so disturbingly similar in look and size to the next I thought for a minute that they were plastic.
The sauce was almost edible but felt old and tired and the electric-green colour didn’t help matters. The little roll of crusty bread it came with was the tastiest bit of this starter.
The adviser’s risotto was musty and had diced carrots in it. Remember Billy Connolly’s sketch about diced carrots? Enough said.
A bowl of soup described as spinach and broccoli was inedible. Two things were wrong with it: the weird, medicinal aftertaste and the fact that it had been very heavily watered down.
Tagliatelle with ‘home-made’ meatballs was next and I gripped the table hard. Because when the big steaming dish arrived it looked exactly like one of those back-lit pictures of pasta meals you see on the walls of economy restaurants in European capitals’ tourist districts. The heat of the dish was reaching nuclear fission point and I feared it might melt its way through the table, then through the carpet, floorboards, concrete joists and eventually onto the heads of the receptionists downstairs.
Six big meatballs with a strange white, melted rubbery mass covering two of them like the marshmallow monster cloud out of the Rice Krispies Squares television ad, sat on a blood-red mat of sauce. Beneath the mat I could make out a blubbery nest of overcooked and sticky pasta. And as soon as the knife touched the meatball it rebounded. The meatballs had a testicular quality about them and putting them in one’s mouth was not an option. I tried a bit as did the adviser and neither of us was able to swallow.
The adviser felt that her own plate of pork scaloppini with lyonnaise potatoes was “comforting”. I argued that she only felt that in the light of the horror I had to face with those meatballs staring at me. I tried one of her potatoes and gagged but she persevered. She does this from time to time. One day she’s dismissive of bad food and bad service, other days she goes all austere and Stalinist and defends the principles of eating food no matter how bad it is because we’re lucky enough to have it.
Sorry. But not on my watch. Her scaloppini was as rubbish as my balls. It was dear and it was unforgivable and the Ramada was getting away with it because, well, hotel guests don’t often complain and few have any idea that it would be better to get a taxi out of there and eat elsewhere. Anywhere.
I could go on about the sand-dry Tia Maria Tiramisu and the hockey puck of a lemon custard tart but I’d rather finish on the fact that this particular night, there was a public sector function on. In the ladies’ toilet outside the banqueting hall, the adviser found an unopened quarter bottle of vodka. She left it there, feeling that the vodka was one woman’s strategy to help her get through an evening there — either at the function, or in the restaurant.
3-course dinner X 2: £43.90
Kid’s 2-course: £4.95
Kid’s 3-course: £5.95
Onion rings: £2.50
Bottle wine: £12
Sprite X 2: £3.30
Hot chocolate: £1.95