Glass vs. Plastic: the Show Must Go On
VEEN Scene 002

By Joe Mortimer

When everything else about the fine dining experience is so carefully thought through, why do some restaurants allow standards to slip when it comes to the presentation of water?

Fine dining is a special experience. It’s an opportunity for people to escape the daily routine of their lives; to try new things and spoil themselves with decadent food and drink. Dining out means eating things you don’t ordinarily have at home, sipping cocktails and fine wines that you wouldn’t dream of consuming in front of the telly, and soaking in an ambiance that one simply can’t recreate in a domestic environment. It’s theatre; it’s illusion – it’s escapism at its most refined.

There are two very simple scenarios in which this illusion can be shattered. One is the irritating chirp of a cell phone; a jaunty ring tone quickly followed by the awkward glance of a companion when they realise the faux pas. It’s a tragic moment, but it generally passes quickly. The second is much more enduring. When your waiter or sommelier comes to the table and offers a bottle of high-street branded water – a bottle you saw that very same day at the local grocery store. Everyone involved experiences a quick reality check, and the high-end gastronomic spell is broken.

This interloper remains on the table for the duration of the meal, nestled among bottles of precious wine from France and Italy, standing tall over locally-grown organic produce delivered from the farm to the restaurant that morning. So much effort has gone into creating a plate of food that dazzles the eye, delights the nose and pleases the mouth, and yet here stands a scruffy bottle of supermarket water that hasn’t even bothered to dress for the occasion.

For the sommelier, the value of the 1982 Chateau Margaux that he’s allowing to breath beside the table is suddenly diminished by the presence of the plastic receptacle, and the chef is embarrassed that his dish – which looks more like a work of art than a plate of food – must suffer the indignity of sharing the same table.

A touch melodramatic?  Possibly – but with good reason. Because modern dining is theatre, and we’re all part of the production. Personally, I want great food, fabulous wine, and impeccable service. Don’t ruin it all by shoe-horning a household name into the drama. It’s like that moment in Game of Thrones when Ed Sheeran appeared and gave a cheeky little wink to the camera – it ruined the fantasy and brought it all crashing back down to earth.

And I’m not the only one who thinks so: “Just the same way hotels and restaurants use china plates, silver cutlery and glassware made from crystal or glass instead of paper plates and plastic cutlery, we feel that it is appropriate to use glass bottles in this environment,” says Aman Gupta, chairman of VEEN Water.

“Our competitive advantage is that instead of creating a ‘one size fits all’ type water product, we wanted to create unique products for specific purposes. Since our water is ideal for the culinary environment, we chose to keep the packaging also appropriate to this environment.”

Many of the world’s fine dining restaurants and high-end retails outlets also tend to agree: VEEN’s elegantly bottled product is the water of choice for premium restaurants, hotels, royal palaces and private homes in 15 countries; establishments whose management teams agree with his discerning approach to choosing the right products for their dining tables.

It’s not just appearance of a bottle that has a negative impact on the dining production. Whereas the value of our EUR 249 tasting menu can be easily justified by the combination of fine ingredients, expert cooking, artistic presentation and inviting ambiance, there is nothing to justify the EUR 12 price tag of a bottle of water we know costs EUR 2 in the shops.

Feel free to charge me a premium for a litre or two of natural water presented in a gorgeous glass bottle; tell me why this particular H2O will complement my meal and leave the bottle on the table for me to admire, and I will be glad to pay for the privilege. But don’t ruin it all by trying to sneak a bottle of supermarket agua onto a table of exquisite things. You might as well put a pile of undressed vegetables on a side plate and tell me it’s a garnish.

Of course there’s a whole raft of other reasons for not using plastic bottles for water – from the environmental impact of plastic waste to the way that PET bottles can affect the taste of the water if stored incorrectly – but for the sake of this argument, aesthetics come front and centre.

Fortunately, this experience happens less and less, and very few self-respecting restaurant managers would stand for this elementary blight on the dining experience. Many restaurants, particularly those in ethical hotel brands, do it for environmental reasons, adopting a policy of no plastic anywhere in their venues. But there’s no denying the importance of the visual impact that using a bespoke, high-quality glass product can have when compared to its disappointing plastic relative.

So restaurateurs, please: ditch the plastic, preserve the magic, and your audience will no doubt respond with a standing ovation.