Square Meal’s 2009 Survey

Beefs, bellyaching and bugbears seem to be part and parcel of dining out – especially in these cash-strapped times. Our survey spells out what’s niggling readers the most

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Service, price and ambience are the three big perennial issues, but this year has seen a significant shift of emphasis. While sub-standard service remains the biggest bugbear (41% of all grievances), 2009 has been marked by a hike in gripes relating to prices. Poor-value food and extortionate wine mark-ups have been brought into sharp relief as the economy has slowed, with complaints rising 30% over the past two years. Punters, now looking for even more bang from their buck, have also been quick to criticise ‘minuscule morsels’ and ‘silly’ prices at some top-end restaurants, and have railed against humbler establishments aiming for ‘maximum revenue at minimum cost’. The fact that niggles about food quality are down by 12% is, we suspect, a symptom of diners becoming more focused on value for money, coupled with the continued improvement in cooking throughout the capital. Restaurants have responded to the recession by offering all manner of crunch-busting deals. While customers have applauded these initiatives in principle, the increase in complaints about boring and limited menus, as well as mean portions, suggests they don’t always deliver on substance.

Spoiled Spaces

Grumbles about ambience and decor now represent 22% of all complaints (a rise of 57% since 2007). People want to find a hum of contentment in a restaurant – not too loud (6%) which may be the result of successful restaurants packing in diners (compounded by acoustically unsympathetic interior design or ear-blasting music), but not too quiet (5%) which can be equally off-putting.

Stinking Service

Rude staff and cramped tables are usually symptoms of a frothy economy, but while the ‘sardine tin’ syndrome is becoming less common, reports this year of rude service have shot up by 50%. Readers’ comments are peppered with words such as ‘snooty’, ‘dismissive’ and ‘bad-mannered’ – yet complaining about it can be discomfiting: one diner who spotted some unsanitary goings-on in an open kitchen, and reported it to the maître d’, had to bear the constant gaze of the reprimanded chefs throughout the remainder of her meal. Despite this year’s change in legislation on the distribution of tips, diners are still angry about the subversive policy of adding a service charge to bills without asking. There has been a 38% increase in such complaints, with several readers frustrated by the ‘palaver’ that is often involved when requesting any surcharge to be removed. Readers clearly believe that offering real value and quality in every department is more crucial than ever, particularly as 2010 promises to be as punishing on the wallet as the last 12 months. Restaurants that can satisfy all expectations should prosper; others with a more cavalier attitude can expect to struggle. These days, the customer is king.

Editorial feature from Square Meal Guide 2010