Reading the Editor's Letter in the December issue of Esquire Magazine almost made me weep with envy. In this introduction to this special food & drink issue, the editor describes London's journey from being ”a culinary calamity” to becoming a food metropolis that can easily be compared to New York and Tokyo, boasting about restaurants that are ”the envy of the world”. Delving deeper into this special issue, I noticed how they almost run out of adjectives for praising the food revolution that has taken place in London. Chefs, restaurant owners, cookbook authors and other authorities in the business take turns describing the culinary explosion that has taken place and giving their take on the reasons for this development.
In short - what is described in this issue is the exact opposite of what I see when I look around Riga. London seems to be everything that Riga is not. When I have friends visiting from abroad, or when I get an email from a Foodinriga.com reader, the question I dread the most is ”are there any restaurants you can recommend?". I dread it, because the honest answer would have to be ”no”. Okay, yes, there are a few places I would suggest without feeling any shame, but on even a European level, most Riga restaurants just aren't up to par. Now, I can see how some of you right now are thinking ”oh, here goes this pompous Swedish prick again, ranting about how other places are so great and how Riga sucks”. If so, I can sort of see why and I can't stop you. However, know that this is not my intention. Instead, I merely want to explore what makes a great (or not so great) food city. I don't pretend to have the answers, but allow me to make some qualified guesses.
In London, restaurants are the new nightclubs. They are not just places to eat, but places where people go to spend an entire evening and enjoy themselves. This is really not the case in Riga, where at many places, the only people there on a Saturday night are the staff, their sad-looking faces lit up by the light of their phones and laptops. Now, this has puzzled me for a long time. After all, Riga is supposed to be ”the pearl of the Baltics”, and so you would expect some eating out action, at least during the weekends. To help me figure this out, I asked some locals, friends of mine, why people in Riga don't go out to eat more. It seems this fact is something they all recognize, but haven't really reflected on before. However, they all concluded that it's probably rooted in Latvian culture and is a remnant from the recent history. People used to have much less money and eating out simply wasn't an option. Even if people, generally speaking, are a bit more well off now, they simply choose to cling rather tight to their money instead of ”wasting” it by going to restaurants. This, however, tells me that people here see alcohol as a better investment, since bars and drinking places are often packed*...
Another negative side effect of this cultural reluctance to eat out is that people simply are not used to demanding high quality at restaurants, or even worse, not recognizing poor quality. I draw this conclusion after having experienced first-hand so many terrible things in restaurants and food joints in Riga: vegetarian dishes containing unannounced meat; buffets where not one thought has been put into what goes well with what; warm beer; cold food; terrible service; chunks of bone and sinew lurking in the food etc. The list goes on and on. Also, me and my friends have suffered quite a few food poisonings, which makes me question everything from the quality of the ingredients to the thoroughness of restaurants' hygiene routines and inspections by the authorities. Granted, the fancier the place, the less risk of encountering this sort of thing, but it shouldn't happen anywhere, no matter the price level. It is my firm belief that this sort of stuff wouldn't occur if restaurant goers would show that they don't tolerate such nonsense. Therefore, it's easy to conclude that people in general don't tell waitresses and chefs when they've had a bad experience.
Florence Knight, head chef at London restaurant Polpetto, had this to say about the restaurant explosion in London: ”It's good for chefs because it keeps you on your toes. It's got rid of the rubbish because you wouldn't be able to survive any more in the industry.” Common sense, no? However, this does not apply in Riga. What decides whether you'll live or die as a restaurant has nothing to do with the quality of your cooking. I've seen excellent places close down while true rubbish just keeps thriving. I'm bamboozled by the thousands of likes that horrible places get on Facebook, while much better places go unnoticed. To me, this really supports what I said in the previous paragraph. Hopefully this will all change when people start going out to eat more often and the demand for quality is more naturally rooted in people's minds.
Another factor is the lack of influence from other countries, cultures and cuisines. Latvians seem really fond of local food, and while this is excellent (it's easy to find locally produced foods, which is great for the environment, the local economy etc.) it also means that if you are a fan of foreign food, you will have to search long and hard to find even the most basic ingredients. Most likely you won't find anything, but have to search online or do your own importing. Why is this? Well, by living here for four years I can say that Riga is the least immigrant-dense place I have ever been, and a look at the statistics confirms my suspicion: excluding returnees, the influx of immigrants to Latvia is virtually zero. This is to be (loosely**) compared with the UK, where net immigration for the past 10 years has been about 200 000-250 000 people/year. That the blending of cultures does wonders for inter alia the food scene shouldn't be a shocking revelation to anyone, and Riga is largely missing out on that. The lack of foreign people and their influence on the food scene contributes to maintaining the homogenous status quo that is so frustratingly prevalent here.
Maybe now you start to see that what I'm trying to get at here is that there are some inter-related factors that drag down the quality of restaurants: few people eat out, few outsiders bring different expectations and expertise, few people demand a certain standard = restaurants have no incentive to raise the bar. However, I don't want to paint a picture of fire and brimstone. The bright side is that because cooking and running a successful restaurant doesn't require a degree in astrophysics, there is tons of potential in Riga. To mention just one example, take all the fantastic venues waiting to be used (or which are already in use). In my view, what helps create a great food city is a lively collaboration between chefs, owners and guests. When negative population growth ceases, and the 200 000 or so (mostly young) people who left Latvia during the bad years decide to return, with all the eye-opening experiences they've surely had, including what good food is, Riga food makers better get ready. They will most likely bring with them a completely different demand for quality.
* but to be fair, contrary to restaurants in Riga, many bars and cafés are excellent. If I had the time to do them, I'd quickly register wineinriga.com and coffeeinriga.com.
** I am well aware of the many differences between the UK and Latvia, population size being the most obvious one, but my point is no less valid.