“There’s no such thing as a free lunch” – or is there?  As a ‘mystery diner’ retired civil servant Helen Jackson can choose where, and when to eat out, in return for an objective report.  Does it sound too good to be true? Read on and make up your own mind.

Although there are several mystery dining companies, the one I use works like this: dines are posted on a website and, as there’s no set pattern to their release, it’s literally a matter of frequent checking and being ‘fastest finger first’.  Those with a track record of quality reports, see dines before others.  A brief details available dates, the reimbursement and any specific requirements, for example, the number of courses.

Opportunities are varied: outlets where you’d grab a lunchtime snack, pubs, casual chain restaurants, and highly sought-after, high-end dining.  I’ve done the whole range, with my maximum reimbursement being £150 for lunch for two, with cocktails beforehand.  There are also visits to football stadiums, theatres, cinemas and zoos.

Familiarisation with the brief beforehand is a must, as they all vary.   Booking is often recommended, but many restaurants now only take online bookings, which doesn’t suit everyone.  We plan how we’re going to get there, check the online menu and choose our dishes.   Sometimes you can live within the reimbursement, but on occasion, you may need to supplement it to fulfil the brief.  This is the biggest bone of contention between mystery diners: some feel it should cover everything, whilst others, like myself, see it as a contribution to a meal out.

As well as a healthy appetite, you need to be observant (to see what’s happening around), have a good memory (for descriptions of staff) and a mobile phone (for photographs of food and drink).  All stages of the dine have to be reported on.

Booking and arrival – pre-Covid, several restaurants didn’t take bookings, but had to change their policy, and I’m pleased this has continued.  You need to report how you were greeted, and, if you had to wait, how were you treated?

Ordering – Covid saw the introduction of QR codes with menus downloaded, and orders placed, on a mobile phone.  Although I’m IT savvy, I often struggled and needed help.  Staff also disliked them as it gave them no opportunity to upsell, i.e. ‘would you like bread and olives’?  Most restaurants have targets, in minutes, for taking orders, serving drinks and food, and clearing plates: taking photographs helps record accurate timings.

Eating – obviously the best bit and we’ve started swapping dishes halfway through, so I can comment on taste.  Sometimes we struggle with overly large portion sizes, and I now avoid dines which involve three courses.

Ambience – loud music is often an issue, especially when it’s quiet or when it’s automatically ramped up just because it’s a certain time.   Lighting, especially in the evening, can be too dim to easily read the menu, and funky or small font sizes are not helpful for older eyes.  Toilets have to be checked and invariably involve stairs.

Payment – can be the point where service falls down, as it’s difficult to attract attention to request the bill.  Whilst the payment is processed, restaurants like to see interaction between customer and diner and a meaningful farewell.

After the visit, the report has to be written to a deadline, and receipts and photographs submitted which can take between 1 and 2 hours.

I became a mystery diner when I was working, so my choice of dines had to be factored around this.  However, now I’m retired, and entitled to free travel around London, I’m spoilt for choice.  I choose venues serving food I love, or food I want to experience such as ramen and bao buns, and I’ve acquired a taste for craft beer and kombucha.  I also opt for a mix of places nearby, or in an unfamiliar area that we  can explore beforehand.

Despite Covid, in 2021 I ate out 41 times with an allowance of £1,550.  And whilst they weren’t all ‘free lunches’ as I spent £216 of my own money, I think it was a pretty good way to spend my time, and hopefully the hospitality trade have benefited from my feedback.


Contributor – Helen Jackson