Category Archives: Eating out – issues

Terrible bad – and the need for free wifi

I’ve been terrible bad, barely blogging here – partly down to our broadband being not so much super-fast as super-dooper-sssslllloooowwww, and partly down to simply working too much on other things.

TH Cafe
T H Café, Dolgellau (photo from Trip Advisor)

Due to the aforementioned broadband running like a snail with arthritis, I have been working quite a bit in a couple of cafés in the nearby towns, and have come to the conclusion that an essential ingredient for a perfect café is free, decent wifi.

Happily my absolute favourite choices, depending on where I am, are generous with the wifi – they are TH Café in Dolgellau and the Llew Glas Deli in Harlech.There are others I use, but generally they fall down on other factors (customer service, ahem), or their wifi is either only free for a limited period of time and/or ensures that you are bombarded with marketing drivel for ever and ever. Making a pact with the devil would be a better bargain than getting ‘free’ wifi from one of the high street chains…

How did this happen? It wasn’t that long ago that I wrote a post about local cafés, in which I went on about decent coffee, customer service, even the quality of the seating. The quality of the broadband barely occurred to me – then. Now it’s crucial. Is it something to do with the fact that I now carry my very own edition of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (in the form of my iPad) everywhere?

It intrigues me, though.

A couple of days ago I sat in one of my favourite cafés and noticed a family of four nearby. It was a glorious day though the wind was a little nippy, but the sun was beating down, the countryside was gleaming with new leaves and the sea was the sort of deep blue you normally associate with the West Indies rather than West Wales. And yet this evidently holidaying family were sitting inside a café, each of them lost in their own mobile device – either tablets or smartphones. It wasn’t just that they weren’t paying attention to the world outside, they weren’t even paying attention to each other. Or the food, either: they could have been served a helping each of slugs stewed in their own juice, and they’d not have noticed. As they left one of the staff wished them a good day, and the mother said that they were going home tomorrow, and how thankful they’d been for the wifi.

I went over to pay myself, and started chatting with the staff (I know them, it’s OK, I don’t always start gossiping to complete strangers). Apparently the family had been in every day for a week, had never stayed less than a couple of hours and sometimes more, had almost never spoken to each other except to order food and drink. It’s been a good week, weatherwise, too. The staff were slightly baffled and so was I – why come to somewhere like Snowdonia for a holiday if you’re not going to get out into it?

This prompted me to ask about the wifi. Could the caff imagine life without it? No need to imagine, I was told – a few weeks previously it had gone down (no surprise there, I think BT believe that if they improve the cables in Wales they’ll just get eaten by dragons). And so had their takings.

So I’m making a plea to us all, including myself. Yes, let’s use cafés with wifi, and why not? But do let’s enjoy other things too. Counryside. Coasts. Our friends, our families. Cakes. Coffee. Or the slug stew will come out. Honest it will.

 

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Whatever happened to afternoon tea?

I’ve been fiddling about in the basement office – well, I say office, but at this time of year it’s a store for garden furniture, kindling and unwashed fleeces – and I came across a book from the 1980s, Jane Pettigrew’s Tea Time.

afternoon tea...A little idle flicking through brought instant nostalgia – for the habit of afternoon tea, not for the scary big hair in the author photograph: 1986 may have been a good year for teashops, but it was evidently a fantastic year for anyone selling hairspray.

A brief read of the intro was enough to make me realise that a great gulf of time had suddenly opened up, however. And some of the recipes – Downton, pure fantasy Downton. Admittedly they were self-consciously nostalgic even in the 1980s, but kidney paté on toast? Did anyone really make that? Devilled sardines?

All of this made me think seriously about the role afternoon tea has played in my life. It’s barely conscious, but it is a constant. And it’s quintessentially British, too – not English, oh no, it’s got a fine place in Scotland and Wales, and in Ireland. Especially at funerals, but that’s a specialist sub-set of the afternoon tea. And of course it’s present in literature – the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, for instance.

Alice

It’s been a constant for me for as long as I can remember (though dormice in teapots have been remarkable by their absence).

Constant right from being a child, when we regularly had afternoon tea at my grandparents, all fine china and salmon and something slithery my step-grandma called ‘shape’, or when we went on celebratory trips, all dressed up, to Betty’s of York. Then it persisted, in a bastard but equally enjoyable form, though college – Fitzbillies cakes and crumpets cooked by being slapped onto the bars of a gas fire – and my first years down in London, where I indulged at Fortnum and Mason; I know, I know, but I worked almost next door. It was a marked feature of holidays in Ireland and of holidays in Yorkshire.

(An Irish friend developed a Yorkshire–English phrase dictionary. This included such phrases as ‘let’s just stop for a cup of tea’, which was translated as ‘let’s just stop for a few buckets of tea, a sandwich, an unfeasibly large scone and a ginormous piece of chocolate cake’. I can’t think what she was going on about, really… it’s not unique to North Yorkshire. And nor were the arguments about who was paying, either. Think about Mrs Doyle and Mrs Dineen slugging it out over afternoon tea payment in Father Ted. and you’ve got about the right image – er, apart from our appearance, that is. We were both goddesses and neither of us wore a hat.)

But it’s not a constant now – or not in the classic sense. We seem to have lost the habit of afternoon tea. Or perhaps it’s just changed (and got infintely, unbelievably expensive if you will have it at the Ritz). No more devilled kidneys, no more sitting down over cucumber sandwiches with the crusts cut off, no more smoked salmon pinwheels. When did you last see a three-tier stand with sandwiches on one layer, little scones in the middle and elegant small cakes on the final one? Rather than one filled with lurid cupcakes or, more latterly, equally lurid macarons?

But there’s a lot more ‘meeting up for a coffee and a cake’ going on (and notice the pattern on the oilcloth – referencing afternoon tea):

coffee and cake

Perhaps we’ve turned Viennese, with our kaffee und kuchen instead. I’m not decrying that; I love it, it’s really enjoyable and damn near perfect when you’ve got good places to go like the Llew Glas Deli In Harlech and T H Cafe in Dolgellau (though there can be a downside, which I’ve moaned about elsewhere).

There’s no doubt that there’s a baking revival underway, with the Great British Bake Off, things like the Clandestine Cake Club and the popularity of cupcakes (they’re not popular with me, though: I detest the oversweet, sticky, tasting-of-damn-all-except-sugar, squishy little sugar transporters – and no apologies for repeating ‘sugar’, either). And there’s been an increased interest in good tea, too. But it seems to me that the interest in afternoon tea as such is more style than substance. So far.

Maybe it is time for a 1980s-style revival of the 1930s interpretation of the nineteenth-century tradition of afternoon tea. Maybe we need to be hunting out those china three-tier cake stands in junk shops and using them as they were intended to be used, and laundering damask tablecloths. Maybe we need to revisit parts of the 1980s – not the hair or the politics, please – and go full throttle for reinventing the British tradition of afternoon tea. It’s ideal, sometimes. If you’re going out in the evening, why rush over eating a meal which then leaves you doubled-up with indigestion in the theatre? Why not have a good afternoon tea instead? Oh, I know, work. It gets in the way of so much. But perhaps we could introduce proper afternoon tea breaks? Just a thought. No more polystyrene, get out the bone china. Yo!

well, quite

(I’m sorry about this. I found it on Pinterest, sans credit, and couldn’t resist…
Those animals are stuffed, and possibly the child too.)

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…