For professional reasons, I spend a great deal of time looking at what I like to call TripeAdvisor. I use it as a filtering tool in my research, but it also offers an unrivalled insight into the psychology of the British dining public. It isn’t pretty.
I’m most intrigued by that significant minority of diners, most vocal on TripAdvisor, who seem to regard the waiting staff in restaurants as the enemy. They venture out, these cynics, not in the hope of exchanging money for warm, professional service, but firm in their conviction that waiters are feckless wasters who must be beadily scrutinised. Such people may be posting online, but their tone is Victorian. They are permanently outraged dowager aunts, dismayed at the poor quality of the servants.
For these people – snobs essentially – who assume a master-servant dynamic in what should be a relationship of mutual respect, any perceived slight is pounced on: a minor delay in the reception area; a waitress not smiling enough; an ‘impertinent’ joke from the staff; ice arriving in a drink when it shouldn’t have; the waiter forgetting that one of the mains is off; food arriving 0.34 seconds outside the time these sticklers think appropriate, without so much as an apology. All these things, and many more, can bring on conniptions in such sensitive souls.
These miseries are easy to spot. They’re the ones muttering angrily at the next table as they methodically pick holes in every detail of this joyless experience. However, they’re not the only people who bring an unnecessary tension and attitude to the restaurant table. Far too many people treat eating out as adversarial combat.
We have all, at times, found ourselves sitting with a boorish oaf who talks to the staff as if they were children, or a serial complainer who passive-aggressively queries every minor detail of their plate. Personally, I detest the Embarrassing Accountant: that bloke who ostentatiously audits every bill, cross-checking it with what everyone had, drink-by-drink, because all restaurants try to rip customers off, don’t they? I have even seen a grown man get into a testy standoff with a waitress because she had the temerity to take his side-plate away.
On a personal level, in that situation, there are four things you must do. Address such rude behaviour directly, make a mental note to never eat with that person again, quietly apologise to the staff and leave a big tip. But, in the wider sphere, could we, as restaurant lovers, do more to improve the UK’s attitude to waiting staff?
In Britain, service culture is still in its infancy. There’s not just an absence of respect for waiters at an individual level, but also, generally, for the role itself. People perceive it as a job of last resort, a poorly paid stopgap for a transient workforce which frequently, lacks the training or motivation to deliver service with any vigour or enthusiasm. There is a kernel of truth in that, too.
A growing number of visionary businesses see the value in investing in good staff (these are the restaurants we try to
write about in O), but in the main the restaurant industry is still a harsh place. In many cases it treats its staff as disposable drones, which hardly encourages sterling service, which, in turn, means that when Britain eats out it’s automatically on its guard. It’s a lose-lose situation – one which we could begin to improve by, first, affording waiting staff a little professional dignity, and paying them properly.
The union, UNITE, is currently campaigning to encourage hospitality businesses to pay staff the Living Wage, a fairly
basic request, but one meeting resistance and indifference from restaurateurs. I find it bizarre that there is such a focus on issues of animal welfare and sustainability in restaurants, but how the staff is treated is rarely discussed. I would love to see Living Wage stickers in restaurant windows, next to the usual Michelin and food hygiene plaudits.
Fair pay, respect and an acknowledgement of the complexity of their work is the least we owe waiting staff. Treat them as a professional body rather than drudges, and hopefully a more mature, distinctly British service style would emerge, if gradually. We certainly need something less awkward than the hushed servility of traditional fine dining environments, or that American-style, tip-focussed service of OTT chumminess and endless interruptions (‘Everything ok, guys?’), that’s now standard in our high-street chains. Both of those styles of service are grating rather than ingratiating. We are adults, but the way we interact in restaurants often feels infantile.
In France, there’s been much debate recently about a perceived ‘welcome deficit’ among restaurant staff. Apparently, visitors find the direct, unfussy nature of French service off-putting. Why? Surely that’s the way diners and waiters should behave: as equals, confident in their respective roles. Customers are not gods, nor are they children who need entertaining.
What I do I want from a waiter? A civil greeting, a firm grasp of the menu and prompt service, delivered by someone who clearly doesn’t feel demeaned in the role. Despite the whinging that I read on TripAdvisor, I can’t believe I’m alone in that.
You may also like…