A quarter of a century ago I got a telephone call from a man who had seen my new restaurant column and wanted to invite me out to lunch.
He said that since we were both in the same line of business – he was the mystery diner for the Berni Inn steak chain and wrote reports for his bosses rather than the public – we might like to chew over the fat.
Oh, and there would be a steak in it for me.
We met at the Norton, Meadowhead, and he was a few minutes late. Deliberately so. After we had shook hands he said 10 things had already happened. No, I said, I’d just waited.
I was so new to the game I knew little of the art of service. Had I been greeted? One. Did they make eye contact? Two. Did they show me to a table? Three.
Was I given a menu? Four. Asked to order a drink? Five. Checked I was all right while waiting? Six.
And so it went on. During the course of a meal I could expect over 100 ‘service points’ to have happened only I would not have noticed. It was his job to check the standard of service as much as the quality of the food for Berni Inns set much store in making its customers feel comfortable.
You only notice it when it’s not there or where it’s ham-fisted. I’d like a tenner for each time I’ve been asked to order a drink before my bum has touched the chair.
And since the food is only 40 per cent of a night out good service goes a long way to making you feel happy. It was then that I realised there was a lot more to this reviewing game than met the eye so ever since then I quietly tick off my own service points during a meal.
I can’t remember what we ate although I expect it was prawn cocktail, steak and Black Forest gateau because that was the Great British Meal of the Seventies and Eighties, with gammon or plaice as the alternative mains.
Berni Inns have featured several times in my career. I was interviewed for my job at The Star by two assistant editors over steaks at the Old No 12 in Exchange Street.
Sadly, the chain is no more. Grand Metropolitan sold it to Whitbread in 1995 which turned them into Beefeaters and Brewer’s Fayres. The Norton is now a Mitchells & Butlers Sizzling Pub but it is still remembered as a Berni to older folks and I wanted to see how much of the old menu and ethos remains.
Not much of either.
The old Norton was plush and red, a place where steaks took up most of the menu.
The new Norton is a garish, cavernous place with giant TV screens and you have to look hard at the menu full of fajitas, mixed grills, the “Gammon-Tastic”, cod and chips, nachos, chicken tikka masala, lasagne, burgers and chicken and ribs to find them.
It covers all options bar pizzas. Almost everything you would find on a pub menu is here. A mystery diner would have few service points to check. You find a table, order and pay at the bar and a solitary waitress brings and clears the plates. The food is cheap. In fact, it’s really knock-down, canteen-price, almost giving it away cheap. And that’s just the food.
A pint of Greene King IPA is £2.10 and a 175ml glass of wine is £2.95.
Prawn cocktail (in a glass, hurray!), with brown bread and butter, the only thing on the menu recognisable from the Seventies since today’s Norton doesn’t go in for melon boat with maraschino cherry, is £2.79 and you couldn’t knock it.
Instead, my Southern Fried chicken goujons (£2.99), heavily breaded, come with the most disgusting peri-peri sauce I’ve tasted.
The Norton offers four steaks on its sizzling platter range. I had an 8oz sirloin for £8.99. Berni’s innovation was buying in steaks pre-prepared and that’s how these come, in vacuum packs.
I’d asked for it to be cooked medium rare and got it. Sizzling Pub veterans tell me the steaks can be variable but this had decent flavour and was a snip.
Chips, a grilled mushroom and tomato come with the price but I was glad I didn’t pay extra for onion rings because those on my wife’s plate were chewy.
She’d ordered lemon peri-peri chicken and pepper skewers (£6.99) but after tasting my dip left the sauce, which came in a separate jug, well alone. The chicken was decently marinated but there was wasn’t much pepper.
No chance of Black Forest gateau at today’s Norton but a caramel apple Betty pie with custard was really not bad at £3.29. A profiterole sundae (£3.69) was highly calorific.
We paid £28.79 for food and £4 for drinks, perhaps not high on taste but certainly value.
As we left the barman said goodbye. Now that’s a tick on the service point list.
The Norton, 337 Meadowhead, Sheffield S8 7UP. Tel: 0114 237 3217. Open: Mon-Thur 11.30am-11pm, Fri 11.30am-midnight, Sat 11am-midnight, Sun 12-11pm. Disabled access and toilets. Vegetarian dishes. Credit cards. Large car park.
Food 3; Atmosphere 2; Service 3; Value 4.