Restaurants. I love ’em. You love ’em. We all love ’em. And, as Neil Young observed, only love can break your heart.
We love restaurants with such intensity that when they get it wrong, we’re liable to, if not explode (we are British), then stalk off into the night brooding on our hurt in a way that’s no good for any long-term relationship. Let’s be honest, restaurants can be very annoying. They slip into bad habits. They do irritating things. As indulgent lovers we let plenty slide and in the hospitality industry (as bizarre and insular as any religious cult), those insufferable tics end up being normalised.
Let’s call this month’s column urgent relationship counselling, as I explore where restaurants are letting us down. Restaurants: it’s not me, it’s you. You need to change.
Have you eaten with us before? Is a question that strikes fear into my very marrow. The only time it needs asking is if, somehow, this restaurant has got way too complicated. Normally, you sit down, read the menu, order food. But oh no, not here. Instead, in this joint, you must suffer an explanation of ‘the concept’ and a short tutorial on a menu that requires you to choose your base, topping, sauces, garnish and sides from something that looks like an equation from A Beautiful Mind. Or a schematic for a small nuclear power station.
Surreal surcharges Are you serious? You’re adding 12.5% service to the price? Of two pints? Which you have, literally, poured and placed on the bar? (Deep breath… Count to 10, Tony… Walk away. Never come back.)
Wrestlemania At Olive we love real bread. However, when that rye sourdough requires a vice and a braced standing position to tear a piece off – and the sharp, gnarly crust then promptly lacerates your gums – this artisan baking malarkey has gone too far.
Waiters draping napkins in laps… because nothing says ‘relax’ like having a complete stranger fossicking in your nethers. There are only two people I allow to rummage ‘down there’: my GP and my wife.
Hooking hell I don’t care how cool bar-counter dining is. Perching on this slender stool is a gymnastic challenge I’m three-stone too heavy and 15 years too old for. Plus, could we please have some hooks for our bags and coats?
No-choice tasting menus There was a time when there was a kind of sexy militancy to this; a thrill-seeking sense of abandon: “I’m yours chef, do with me what you will!” However, now every Tom, Dick and Harriette is at it, that edgy 50 Shades Of Gravy vibe has worn off. Globally, no more than 10% of chefs are cooking food of such extraordinary creativity that the experience is enhanced by allowing them to dictate how you eat it. For the rest, no choice tasting menus just make life easier for the kitchen.
“Have you finished with the bread?” A staggeringly stupid question. Does anyone ever want to give up their bread? I could be on dessert and still fancy a nibble. But like peremptorily whipping away glasses (“Will you be having wine with your main?”) or side plates after starters, waiters cannot help but clear the table while you’re still eating at it.
Constant wine top-ups Firstly, don’t park my alcohol out of my reach (it makes me anxious). Secondly, don’t then refill my glass every time you walk by. That’s not service. You’re not attending to my needs. You’re blatantly trying to upsell me a second bottle. And because I’m weak it will work.
Plate pile-up “The kitchen will send dishes out when they’re ready, is that OK?” No, no, it’s not. Because invariably, suddenly, everything arrives at once, an erratic jumble of hot ‘n’ cold dishes that, because the table is tiny, we then have to squash on, cram in and pile up like a cross between Buckaroo and the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
Sunday jazz acts… live acoustic duos, DJs adding a thumping kick-drum to my late-night taco. I love music, which is precisely why, when eating out, I detest being subjected to yours. Background muzak I can zone-out. However, someone giving it the full Shirley Bassey 10 feet away will ruin any meal.
The at-table service show This takes many forms, from the palaver of staff pouring a sauce over your main or a roast being carved from a traditional guéridon trolley tableside, to interminable descriptions of every last micro herb on your plate. I never know how to handle it. Sit there with a fixed grin? Fake it by firing banal questions? Or politely ask the waiting staff to zip it because, fundamentally, no matter how interested in the food we are, we’re friends trying to have a conversation here – and you keep interrupting.
Enigmatic, hipster toilet signs… that leave you loitering outside the gents (or is it the ladies?), looking bewildered as the staff peer at you, one finger poised over 999.
“Did you enjoy that?” A perfectly civil question at the end of a meal. But not after every course. And you want me to pick a favourite, too? Is this a quiz? Am I a diner or just a feedback form to you? In fact, do you send out those annoying follow-up questionnaires if I booked online? Then I’ll email you. It’ll be easier. I’ll email. Promise!
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