Geneva’s Food Culture: Epic Fail

My dear readers (yes, all three of you), after a couple of (fun) years of writing this blog and many more of living in this city I call home, it’s starting to dawn on me that there is something a little wanting in the restaurant industry here. “That much we already knew” you might retort. But I’m not really referring to the things we usually complain about. I just feel there is something fundamentally wrong with the way the service industry approaches consumers in Geneva and this is especially clear in the restaurant business.

Far be it from me to paint all of the city’s restaurants with the same brush, many of them do go the extra mile, and having a meal at such establishments is a highly pleasurable experience. Quality restaurants are usually expensive and Italian, French or Shibata. Or they’re located in a five-star hotel, but when you’re charging that much money, you really have no excuse. So the fact is great restaurants are few and far between. I’ve drawn up a list of things I feel contribute directly to Geneva’s failings when it comes to how its businesses prepare and serve food. So here goes:

A total lack of imagination

Let’s just start with the most obvious point on this list. Food-related businesses here lack imagination in so many ways, it probably deserves an entire blog post unto itself. But let’s start with a staple that should be found in every culture: hot food you can eat on the go. In the U.S. you’ve got burgers, hot dogs and a plethora of foods from around the world. Go to any large city in the United States and you’ll find quick, hot meal options on every street corner.

Other cultures offer their own signature foods, examples include hot, fresh slices of pizza in Italy, empanadas with various stuffings in South America, fish and chips in the UK, falafel sandwiches in the middle east, etc.

What can you really get here? Don’t kid yourself, you really have three options, only one of which is something of a local specialty: kebabs (not really my cup of tea), McDonald’s (strongly dislike it) or your typical boulangerie fare (cheese and ham sandwiches, ramequins and croissants, etc.). The cold, hard truth is that most boulangeries in Geneva are boring and unexceptional and even the better ones will lose their appeal quickly once you’ve been a few times.

But the lack of commitment to originality doesn’t stop there, say you do go the sandwich route, can you name one original sandwich filling you’ve had in this city? More importantly can you name one original filling that is both fresh and genuinely a treat for your palate? I challenge you!

No attention to detail

Let’s stay on the sandwich topic for a second. Let’s say you do find that exceptionally original, tasty sandwich. Question for you: how good is the bread? Is it fresh? Is it hot out of the oven? I’m thinking probably not. There is a famous sandwich chain in Geneva, other than feeding you various processed fillings (seriously, processed eggs? Oh dear Lord), their bread is pre-baked. Yep, yep, in spite of the high turnover this business enjoys, they can’t even be bothered to make fresh bread. And by the way, bread that isn’t technically fresh and processed fillings and condiments come close to a whopping CHF 10 a pop in this particular chain.

There are numerous places in the rest of the world that understand that when it comes to sandwiches, quality bread is a key ingredient. I can’t think of a single place off the top of my head in Geneva that seems to grasp this concept.

You can’t really go out for breakfast here

I’m not talking about Sunday brunch and boulangeries don’t count either, I mean a real place that serves you various breakfast staples every day of the week. Eggs, oatmeal, pancakes, beans on toast if that’s your thing, bacon or even cereal. Actually there is such a place, it’s called a five-star hotel. Otherwise you’re stuck with a boulangerie continental breakfast. That’s it. But you weren’t hoping for variety, were you?

They always have to botch something

A friend of mine was recently complaining about IKEA’s hot dogs, which I agree are no gourmet meal, but hey, they cost all of one franc! And while I’m no fan, what seemed to bug him was the soft bun. I was like, dude, that’s the one thing they actually got right. Kind of. This whole baguette business is just not the way to eat hot dogs. I use the hot dog example but this is true of lots of other things.

A general unwillingness to commit to quality

Ever have a doughnut in Geneva? It is a truly painful experience. They are dry. They are hard. They are gross. This so consistently seems to be the case, that I am starting to believe coffeehouses and various other places here think doughnuts should actually taste and feel like hockey pucks. But no, let’s not give them a pass quite so easily. They know they’re serving you inedible garbage and they’re doing it anyway. Let’s try a different example, when is the last time you ordered a dish here and enjoyed the side of rice that came with it?

Laziness and/or apathy

I recently went to a sandwich place in town and asked for one of the sandwiches listed on the blackboard. I was politely told there weren’t enough people making sandwiches that day and therefore I could have either of the sandwiches sitting in one of those display cabinets which by the looks of things had been made a couple of hours earlier, or you know, not have a sandwich. Oh and by the way, I was the only customer in the shop at that point. Now, wait a minute, doesn’t it specifically say all sandwiches are made to order? Which brings me to my next point…

Not sticking to initial commitments

Geneva’s food industry is rife with this kind of thing, they’ll tell you they’re open year-round but won’t be, they’ll tell you sandwiches are made to order except when apparently they can’t be bothered, they’ll list items on their menu then when you try to order them, they’ll tell you they’re not available, the list goes on.

Thinking organic or local ingredients get the job done by themselves

Yes, right now organic and local food is the way to go. That is an effort I applaud. Slow food movements are on the rise and that’s definitely a good thing. But that doesn’t mean restaurants should slack off on doing the rest of the job right, namely, making exciting food that actually tastes good and makes you want to come back for more. I personally don’t go to restaurants just because the ingredients they use are organic.

Polite, friendly service is not always on the menu

I saved this one for last because this is a recent and highly unfortunate development in Geneva. What has happened to this city in the last couple of years? There was a time when a restaurant’s waitstaff was generally polite and pleasant to deal with. However, I and a number of my friends and acquaintances have recently experienced a kind of rudeness previously unknown here. Sure, people in the service industry here may not always be warm and fuzzy, but they’re usually very civil.

This, unfortunately, no longer seems to be the case. When it comes to dealing with restaurants, there are many things I’m willing to forgive, it is, after all, a stressful job and a thankless one at that. Forgetfulness or even minor signs of stress I won’t hold against you. Be rude to me once and I’ll never visit your establishment again. This has happened on two separate occasions in the past month. But that’s a post for another time.

  • Anonymous

    At the beginning of this text, you write “My dear readers (yes, all three of you)”, Now, it should be “all four of you”.

    • Thank you, dear reader – your comment is much appreciated! 🙂

  • Anonymous

    Maybe you could add the, what I call, “The globus culture”…I went to their restaurant in the city center and I pointed at the black menu (17.50francs) then at the pot with the food, then I had to pay 23.50 for it. Dunno why, plus 5.3chf for a water bottle you get at a triple size for 1chf in Migros…..I will never go there, especially since it was so painfully noisy that I could not hear the person next to me. The food was oke, but the little “extra” bugged me.

    • I hear ya! Globus’ food court is actually quite representative of Geneva’s food culture… from afar it may look appealing, but once you take a closer look, you realize it offers an unoriginal selection of food at best, it is overpriced and just generally falls short of what one would legitimately expect of any self-respecting establishment. My feeling is you end up paying restaurant prices for cafeteria/fast food quality… it just doesn’t make sense. And like you say the food is OK, so if you’re in a hurry and want to eat a quick meal while you’re in town, it may be an acceptable solution, if not, it just isn’t worth it.

  • Anonymous

    Ok I just happened to read your blog as I was looking for some restaurants’ reviews. And then on top of many unjustified critics you expressed I read this post. I understand this reflects your point of view however it seems to me that you are very biased by your origins… let me guess: Anglo-Saxon? No kidding, who else would be looking for a doughnut in Geneva when you have so many delicious croissants, pains au chocolat, croissant aux amandes and so on. I am not saying that some things you pointed out aren’t fair but honestly try to detach your mind from your poor Anglo-Saxon culture of food and realize that food quality here, albeit expensive yet reflecting Switzerland’s high salaries (and how could you afford so many restaurants otherwise?), is really above the average when you think of London, Paris, Berlin, etc. Ok, there might not be a huge variety of restaurants but remember that Geneva is a fairly small city which offers a lot of choices compared to its size. I wonder why you even bother writing all these critics as most of them are very negative. Finally, about the friendliness, weirdly enough I have a complete opposite experience than yours, most people are very polite and warm in cafés and restaurants. Let me guess again: you don’t speak French right? Try sometimes to speak French to the waiters and they might consider you differently as people should always do when they go to a foreign country! Remember that? that thing called being open-minded.

    • Hey there, I appreciate your feedback and while you may think I am biased, please allow me to set the record straight:

      I don’t speak any French? Think again, I’ve lived here for the better part of my life and I’m completely bilingual. Préfèrez-vous poursuivre ce débat en français? Ce n’est pas vraiment la langue du blog, mais ce n’est pas non plus un problème si cela peut aider à clarifier les choses. D’ailleurs est-il réellement indiqué d’émettre ce genre de jugement avant d’en être sûr(e)?

      Moreover, frankly, yes, if you’re going to sell doughnuts in Geneva, and if you’re going to sell them at that price, you might want to try to make them taste good and not have the texture of a hockey puck. But hey, that’s just me.

      As for croissants and pains au chocolat, in spite of the many years I’ve lived here, I’m indeed no expert, overall, I’m fairly underwhelmed though. And somehow, many of the people I know who’ve lived their entire lives here feel many of the bakeries in Geneva aren’t quite at the level they should be.

      You’re right, many of the cities you mention do offer more variety, and regardless of its size, Geneva should too. It should because it’s an international hub, and it draws visitors from all over the world. People who are familiar with good food, good art and good entertainment.

      There is no reason for Geneva not to be as competitive as any of the other cosmopolitan cities around the world. By the way, I appreciate you may not be able to understand this, but the reason I feel so strongly about these issues is that I actually care a great deal for Geneva, and I dislike the fact that a bunch of entrepreneurs in the food industry are working against the city’s best interests.

      You say my critiques are unfair and mostly “very negative” – you couldn’t have possibly looked at more than a couple of them if you think they’re mostly “very negative” (no seriously, go back and read them and you’ll see). So again, I ask you, est-il réellement indiqué d’émettre de tels jugements avant de s’assurer de ce qui est vrai ou pas?

      Do you honestly think I wrote this post without talking to many, many other people first? Do you honestly believe people generally feel they get good value for money in Geneva’s restaurants? Why don’t you try reading the comments above yours and looking at some of the closed polls? Why don’t you ask the people around you? The locals, the expats, the tourists, you know, a decent sample. After all, that’s what I did.

      It’s not that I don’t think that there are any decent restaurants in Geneva, on the contrary, I believe there are many of them, and the overwhelming majority of my +130 posts attest to that very belief. However, I do think there is room for improvement because a lot of entrepreneurs in the restaurant business are coasting on the lack of variety. And perhaps because, as you so aptly point out, they are all too aware of the fact that salaries in Geneva tend to be higher than in other European cities (another misconception by the way, but perhaps this is neither the post nor the blog to address that particular issue).

      Finally, you speak of open-mindedness, but the way I see it, open-mindedness is kind of the opposite of prejudice, and prejudice has a lot to do with forming an opinion without having any real knowledge of the matter at hand… something you seem to have done quite a bit of in your comment. Do you see where I’m going with this?

      Thanks again for sharing your opinion, and in closing, I will say, dear visitor, paragraphs are your friend.

  • Just wanted to leave a quick comment that we’ve enjoyed your writing and perspectives ahead of our first visit to Geneva.

    Unsolicited suggestion: You might consider adding metadata to your posts and feeding it into a micro database of sorts so us data geeks could do some food mining.

    • Hey there and thank you so much for your kind comments, your feedback is much appreciated! I think I figured out how to add meta data to blogger’s posts, and I’ll definitely start doing that but I’m really not sure what you mean by a micro database…? Happy to try to do it if I can figure out how though! 🙂

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