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Is it too much to expect a restaurant to make you feel welcome? Simon Hoggart rails against grumpy staff who treat diners as an annoying inconvenience.
The other month I was eating in a restaurant in Boulder, Colorado. It wasn’t an award-winning place, but a popular local eatery with old-fashioned furnishings. We arrived at the desk and were instantly greeted by a smiley waitress who asked whether we’d like a booth or window seat. She handed us menus, then 30 seconds later was back with tumblers of iced water. We asked for slight changes in the menu, which were willingly agreed, and our food arrived promptly. As we finished eating, the waitress appeared with the bill, saying, ‘I’ll take that when you’re ready!’ It was, of course, ludicrously small: around £25 for two people, each having two courses.
When we got outside I almost wanted to weep. From start to finish, the experience had been just so pleasant. When we arrived, nobody pursed their lips in that British ‘oh-no-not-another-customer’ kind of way. They didn’t impatiently tap the booking screen as if it might be more than human blood and sinew could manage to find a table in a half-empty restaurant. They didn’t try to sell us bottled water at £4 by snarling ‘still or sparkling?’ nor did they grumpily stalk off at the words ‘tap will be fine’, only to return with a single glass of lukewarm fluid that might have already been used to wash some of the less dirty plates. If we needed a waiter we didn’t have to get up and do Ricky Gervais’s dance from The Office to attract their attention. We didn’t have to request the bill twice, then wait 20 minutes until someone could be bothered to track it down.
Most of all, for the hour or so we were there, our American waitress acted as if we were the most important people in her world. People complain about the phrase ‘have a nice day!’ They say it’s hypocritical because the speaker doesn’t mean it. But it’s hugely preferable to a grunted ‘bye’ from a member of staff who has spent much of your visit chatting with her colleagues about their boss’s shortcomings or their weekend plans.
I admit things have improved in Britain, thanks in part to an influx of immigrants, most of whom are cheerful and polite – with the exception of some East Europeans with memories of the Communist era when to be anything other than unpleasant might imply the customers were better than you. Even French waiters can make your teeth ache. At The Fat Duck in Bray we got everyone’s nightmare French waiter, a man who may have had a nose job purely so that he could look down it with added contempt. My wife wanted the medium menu – roughly £67 then. I wanted Heston Blumenthal’s celebrated tasting menu at £97. ‘Zurr tasteen menu is for zurr whole table,’ our waiter explained with ineffable superiority, as if explaining to an idiot child that ‘pâté’ was the French for pâté. So naturally I went for the £37 menu, just to spite him. No doubt there is some inescapable cheffy reason why they can’t do the tasting menu for one. But why couldn’t he explain it – helpfully? Why did he have to act as if I had made some unreasonable demand, such as a Pukka Pie with gravy followed by a deep-fried Jaffa cake? Mind you, the food that did arrive was exquisite.
I don’t ask much. One of the meals I remember with most pleasure was in a Denny’s (byword in the US for wipe-clean-menu mediocrity) on the I-95 interstate between Washington and Philadelphia. It was chicken-fried steak – steak, but battered and fried in the manner of chicken – with hash browns and gloopy milk gravy flavoured with scrapings from the pan. Any gourmet would rather have his tongue cauterised than eat such stuff. I love it. But what was really nice was the homely friendliness of the waitress, the sense that you might be in someone’s home even as the trucks roared past a few yards away. It’s not that much to ask, but you don’t often find it here.
• Managers who go through a great tongue-sucking, ‘let me see’ act when you call to book a table. Then when you get there, there are five other diners.
• When you arrive, the same manager is far too busy doing something else to welcome you. You are then, finally, marched to the table of his rather than your choice.
• You ask the wine waiter for his advice, who immediately points to a wine priced at more than the total cost of the food you’ve ordered.
• While we’re at it, a white wine doesn’t need to be chilled to within an inch of its life. That just freezes the flavour out.
• You wait an hour for the main course to come, and the waitress apologises, saying, ‘We’re a bit short of staff today.’ Would they charge you for an empty plate, on the grounds that they are a bit short of food?
This article was published in the summer 2011 issue of Square Meal Lifestyle.