There's little doubt that times are difficult in the restaurant trade. Various restaurateurs I know blame several factors: a lack of free-spending tourists, the congestion charge, lack of public transport, drink-driving laws, a general economic downturn, rising interest rates, high labour costs… all fair-to-middling excuses, but hardly reasons.
Talk to people outside the business, the sort of people who would love to eat out a couple of times a week, and the reason is perfectly clear. Restaurant meals are too damned expensive.
Plenty of people are willing to pay £50 for two, including a drink or two, for a meal out. But at the moment they are more or less restricted to the dull and corporate experience of a fake Italian or the gloopy brown mediocrity of a local curry house.
What they are not prepared - and cannot afford - to do is to pay 100 or more for a meal every time they go out. Everybody has seen through the hackneyed trick of offering a cheap menu as a sort of loss-leader for coffee, water and wine. Nobody is fooled, and set menus with a soup, a salad, an old bit of farmed salmon and a tired lump of chicken were never very exciting anyway.
The Melbourne Age's Good Food Guide 2006 lists nearly 200 restaurants which, for generally modest corkage, allow diners to bring their own wine, one reason, I suspect, why Melbourne has such a thriving restaurant culture. Why, after all, should a restaurateur expect people to abandon the option of a nice steak and a bottle of red in the comfort of their own home to eat something similar with an overpriced house wine for several times the price?
The orthodoxy that the better the restaurant, the higher the price is one to which restaurateurs and chefs may cling, but it's certainly not what ordinary diners think.
Diners don't necessarily want expensive ingredients. Too many menus are offering sea bass, king prawns, duck breast and fillet steak to people who would rather eat something humbler which they cannot, or cannot be bothered, to make at home. How about marinated herrings, Lancashire hotpot, confit of duck leg, good home-made bread, oxtail soup, watercress salad, Glamorgan sausages or rhubarb crumble? Dishes that take culinary skill and a little time needn't be expensive.
Let people bring their own, and they will bring their friends, too. Make it easier for people to afford to eat out, and you'll be hosting a dozen dinner parties every night.
Over to you
Hugo Arnold, restaurant consultant
"Restaurants have to make a profit, and traditionally in this country a lot of revenue is generated from wine. And if restaurants were to operate a bring-your-own wine system, the revenue lost from not selling wine would have to be derived elsewhere."
Roy Ackerman, restaurateur
"People have tried bring-your-own wine polices with various degrees od success, and I don't think it would make a big difference to the number of customers. Unless you know exactly what you're going to eat, how can you choose a wine before going to a restaurant and match it to the meal you're having."
Henry Taylor, restaurant PR, Joriwhite
"It would be fantastic for local neighbourhood restaurants, and it would probably encourage people to go out for dinner more frequently in that sector. But it wouldn't work for top-end restaurants, as people are prepared to pay high prices for a special meal out. Imagine going to Zuma with your own bottle of Chablis. It just wouldn't work."
William Duke, regional sales manager, Hayman Barwell Jones, independent wine suppliers
"Overheads, particularly in London, are so high that if restaurants had to stop making a profit from wine they would struggle to survive. If restaurants introduced a bring-your-own wine policy they would charge corkage and customers would probably end up paying just as much for the wine."