Service, or tablecloths?

Casual dining is apparently bang on the button, it’s the cat’s eyebrows, It’s now, it’s so hot it’s cool.

Sorry about that – they’re all phrases (well, except for feline facial hair, but it’s probably only a matter of time) I’ve seen or heard which describe the fact that Marcus Wareing’s reopened restaurant is introducing a ‘new informal style of service’. Another top chef has dispensed with tablecloths: Kenny Atkinson was quoted in the Guardian as saying ‘I can’t spend £13,000 a year on laundry.’ None of this, of course, means that these places are suddenly going to be anything other than very expensive, but hey. Maybe it’s a start.

This made me stop and think for a while. What do I most remember, the surroundings or the service? I certainly remember bad service. Slapdash in Dublin; bordering on the aggressive in a top chef’s place in central London – ‘you will be vacating this table in the next twenty minutes’; nope, it wasn’t a question and, yep, it was just after 8.30. There was a Chinese place in Soho which was so notorious that people actually went there to experience the terrible service (the food was OK, though). I was there once with a Cantonese-speaking friend. There was the most enormous argument, and later she said that the bad service appeared to be a deliberate choice. A reputation feeding on itself, perhaps.

Menu outside the Petite Syrah in NiceIn semi-defence of the entire restaurant industry I must say that bad behaviour from customers often engenders the bad behaviour from staff, and there was some wry amusement last year at a cafe in Nice, which charged different prices for coffee according to how polite you were (photo courtesy Nice Matin).

Now I’ve done some waiting in the past, and customers can be very strange*, even when they’re not spontaneously rude. I had one woman who asked for more napkins because a huge sunburn blister on her leg had just burst – nice – and everyone who has worked with the public will know that some people are just spoiling for a fight. They don’t really need a reason; maybe somebody pipped them to a seat on the Tube, maybe their boss stared at them in a funny way – and so they look for someone to bully who can’t bite back. I can, and I’ve never lost a job because of it.

When I was first in a position in which I had to manage people who dealt with the public I used to say ‘treat customers as you would like to be treated’. No grovelling, no aggression, no indifference. Be polite, be courteous, but without any forelock-tugging whatsoever; just be friendly and helpful. (Oh yes – and ‘get me if they’re really horrible’.) The more I think about the service I would like to receive now, the more I realise that I somehow got it right even though I was very young – right for me, at least. That’s exactly what I want when I’m eating out.

So has anywhere got it right for me? I can immediately think of one example: the late-lamented Yetman’s. This small restaurant used to be in Holt in Norfolk, where I hired a cottage every spring for a few years to get away from ‘work’ work and do some real work instead. There was a sense of occasion there, not least because of Alison Yetman’s great cooking, and the service (from Peter Yetman) was great. It wasn’t laid back, though some critics felt it was; I found it confident, relaxed and deeply enthusiastic about the food – ideal. Above all, it wasn’t intimidating: no ‘sir’ or ‘madam’ stuff; you didn’t feel out of place in jeans, and you certainly weren’t treated any differently if you did turn up in denim. But there were big vases of flowers, comfy chairs in which to relax while you ordered, crisp tablecloths and napkins, and I liked all that: it added to that sense of occasion, florist and laundry bills or not. And that was – let’s see – must have been in the late 1990s.

So I don’t see why this ‘informal’ approach is being treated as though it was something new and insightful in a ‘fine dining’ (lordy, I hate that expression) establishment. It’s not. Informal service is not synonymous with bad service; top-end restaurants (and Yetman’s did have five stars in The Good Food Guide) do not have to have eighty-five waiters hovering around each diner, filling up wine glasses and brushing down crumbs every five minutes. Obsequiousness is not the same thing as great service.

dessertsI don’t think it’s just me.

I was staying in southern Normandy a few years ago, and there were two excellent restaurants nearby. The food was equally good at both, both had been equally well reviewed, and they both cost about the same. Neither was exactly cheap, and both of them had tablecloths (mais bien sûr).

The major difference was the service. One was a classic, preserved in aspic from the 1950s; the other was more modern in its attitude, more like a bistro, much more informal.

You could get a table at one of them whenever you wanted. Guess which? Yup. I am definitely not alone in what I prefer.

* OK, staff can be strange too. I helped a maitre’d friend a few times at a rather trendy restaurant in – no, let’s fudge and just say er, um, ‘in London’. It was perpetually short staffed, hence me putting on my black jeans and waiter’s half-apron. But I wasn’t the only helper… the boss was into S&M, and if things were really difficult he would ask what he revoltingly referred to as ‘my girls’ to come and help as well. We wore DMs; they wore stilettos (eek!). The kitchens were downstairs, and you could track the chef’s mood by the number of crumpled pieces of foil about the place – volatile, generally. One summer evening there was a mighty scream, and one of the ‘girls’ came running into the restaurant, followed by the chef wielding a large knife. What I couldn’t see was that there was a large rat between them: she was running away from it and the chef was chasing it, intent on rodenticide. Fortunately it was a Tuesday and it was pretty quiet, but any decent customer service which had been happening died on the spot (unlike the rat, which apparently ran off through the open door). I defy anyone to recover from that one…


2 thoughts on “Service, or tablecloths?

  1. The story about the s&m rat catcher is priceless! I think you were spot on about perfect service, shame so few places get it right. Not that I eat out any more to know! But surely one should always treat other people as one wants to be treated? And always stand up to bullies…

    1. Some things are too far-fetched for fiction, really – if I’d tried to put that in a book it would have been edited out (unless my name had been Anthony Bourdain, that is).

      Some bullying customers definitely get a kick out of it. Not from me. Hm – maybe I missed my way and should have taken up being a dominatrix, 😉

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