Fawlty Towers

What is the restaurant industry’s big problem?

In short: Customers.

I read this piece in February’s Restaurant magazine by Tony Naylor and couldn’t help but want to share it with you.

You join me in A Very Good Restaurant. A waiter is asking the woman at the next table how she liked her main. Basically, she didn’t. There was too much thyme, or was it rosemary? And the lamb was overdone. The waiter smiles dutifully, grimaces sympathetically and diplomatically avoids pointing out that neither herb was present in the dish. I’m not even convinced she had lamb. It was probably venison.

A few days later, a chef is ruefully describing to me how everyone who eats in his restaurant these days feels compelled to offer him advice on his dishes. They’ve seen MasterChef. Ergo, they’re experts. Apparently.

In theory, such freedom of expression is positive. Chefs are not infallible gods. In any restaurant you should feel able to say: “Actually, no, I didn’t like that.” Nonetheless, Britain’s newly democratic food culture – this feeling that Britain now has that it is ‘food literate’ – has created a weird, suspicious tension. Outspoken ‘foodies’ (many clueless) feel compelled to question everything. Is ingredient X even in season? Is fish species Y really sustainable? Then there are questions of taste: a guest complaining that the chef’s version of a dish differs from hers; patronising advice on portion sizes; opinionated, forensic analysis of each plate. I’ve paid my money. I’ll have my say. Must you, really?

We hear a lot about stroppy chefs and idle waiters, but what about rude customers? At least chefs can hide. It is the waiting staff that draw on reserves of patience in a role that can often feel more like crowd control than hospitality. Be it the large group of boisterous (ie pissed) lads that I saw recently, arsing around in a city-centre restaurant, distributing birthday cake, drinks and unwelcome chat-up lines to adjacent tables or, at Michelin level, a loud group demanding a late-night kitchen tour (and they got it) – customers can be nobs.

More insidious is the prickliness with which a minority of people treat waiting staff. Is it any wonder that, in Britain, we struggle with the idea of service as a profession when punters are often incapable of playing their part in this exchange with good grace? You know the kind of thing: surly ordering; aggressive attitude over a simple mistake on the bill; the customers who order as if talking to a slow child. I have a problem with guests interrogating foreign waiting staff about where they come from, as if interviewing them for a travel visa. It’s excruciating. Last month – although it is rare these days – I even saw a man crisply click his fingers across the room at a waiter. Remarkably, the waiter didn’t punch him.