I am occasionally invited by hospitality bodies to share deep and penetrating insights into the mind of a food writer and restaurant critic. At such events I normally share the four commandments to be deployed during the first few seconds of a restaurant guest's arrival.
1. Thou shalt immediately and warmly welcome a guest or guests as they come through the door regardless of their status as walk-in or having a reservation.
2. Thou shalt invite them to pick a table if indeed the choice is available such as might be the case on a cold and empty Friday lunch time. Otherwise take them to their allocated seats or tell the walk-ins you're very sorry, you're fully booked in which case they may want to book a table for the next time.
3. Thou shalt offer them a drink as soon as their buttocks touch the chair (for many new arrivals will be gasping for one even if others may want to see a cocktail list and make a huge big thing of it).
4. Thou shalt bring drinks and menus very quickly so that they settle, feel comfortable and looked after. They are now putty in your hands and you can relax too.
There. It's not hard. These are the commandments which will build a restaurant's reputation in no time, require no added investment and only a bit of careful and consistent management.
Yet so many restaurants fail in these first golden seconds. That's because for some owners, their restaurant is a place of combat in which diners are assumed from the beginning to be troublemakers.
Their job is to get your food to you and then to take your money. Or that's the only possible explanation I can come up with for anybody not adhering to the four-point code.
Last Friday, I climbed the stairs to reach the dining room of Lisburn Road's glamorous looking Bengal Brasserie. When I went through the door I was greeted by a man who looked at me and said not a word. Then he saw I was with somebody. (Not just anybody, but the founder of the Irish Curry Awards, Ali Askir).
The server grabbed two plastic bound menus and signalled to follow him and then walked us to the worst end of the otherwise almost empty dining room.
I told him I didn't want to sit there and he more or less shrugged when I said I wanted the window table. I must be bad with my nerves, but by now I was fit to be tied. It's the hospitality sector, for goodness sake. Who does this in a restaurant? All you have to do is make people feel welcome.
Thankfully, the last two commandments were implemented sharpish.
We ordered chicken tikka starter, described as having been marinated previously before being cooked in the tandoori oven. No mention of a spell in microwave hell or so we thought when the rubbery and bland chicken arrived.
An onion bhaji was more successful and while it had some crispiness to it the interior was suspiciously muddy and soft.
Things only started to improve with the arrival of a jalfrezi and a chicken madras. And the plain naan. All three were better than excellent. The naan was fresh from the oven, charred and crisp on the business-side, bubbled and puffed on the presentation side. Not sweet yet with hints of vanilla, it was a danger zone for carb avoiders.
The madras was hot without being murderous. Generous, delicate and tempered by plenty of lemon juice, it was a beautifully balanced affair, as good as I've had.
But then Ali offered me a spoonful of jalfrezi. The smoky depths of flavour, the spiced heat and firm textures of the chicken were without parallel.
This may be a classic you will see in every south Asian restaurant, but none, believe me, manage to do it quite so brilliantly.
Flavours of peppers and tomatoes are all the more impressive for the sheer lack of evidence that they were there at all. Ali says that's because it's lunch time and they save the chopped peppers and other bits for the dinner trade which requires more showbiz. Who knew?
A discreet and kindly delivered word with the management will hopefully result in a warmer welcome the next time.
Jalfrezi £7.95 (inc rice)
Madras £7.95 (inc. rice)
Plain naan £2.75
Ginger ale x 2 £3.40