Having been fortunate enough to have spent a good deal of my formative years in continental Europe, there are some things about dining out in Europe that you come to take for granted. One is that the table will be brought ice cold fresh water in a bottomless jug as standard. Next, bread will be brought to the table and will most likely be topped up as courses arrive and depart, and third that a tip is recognised in most Restaurants not as an extra charge, but as a reward for a decent service throughout the evening.
So it’s not surprising that dining out in the UK irks me so, because I’ve yet to find a venue that can get all three of these key areas right every time. Bread doesn’t bother me as much because, frankly in the UK, bread is a lost cause – at the cheaper end of the market the bread won’t be worth eating and once you’ve passed the £40 a head mark you normally only have to ask if it’s not already provided.
Tipping and Water however are two totally different animals, and they are the things that are almost guaranteed to irritate me when eating out in the UK, and of those, water is always the first thing to raises my hackles in a restaurant. Now I’m a businessman, I’ve run enough businesses to understand the mark up and the important of linked sales, so I understand that it’s important to get people into the booze as quickly as possible, but for crying out loud, at least start with a jug of ice water on the table!
In London I’m more than happy to just drink Thames water, chilled with a few cubes of ice chucked in, and maybe if I’m lucky a lime – I don’t want to buy a bottle of water because frankly the green part of me balks at the idea of paying for water that’s been hauled around by truck, bottled water often tastes insipid, and the expensive and pointless packaging leaves me agog, especially when we have some of the best tasting tap water available in Europe straight from the tap here in the capital.
So I’m always the first of the group to ask for a jug or pitcher of ice water, unfortunately I’m often left frothing at the mouth in rage when having asked for a jug of water all that’s delivered (usually late) is a single tiny glass. Now this has become a bit of a joke between my friends and I, but it really does wind me up; and in one particularly group of restaurants I’ve started to make exaggerated ‘Andrew Marr’ like arm gestures to denote just-how-big-a-jug I’d actually like delivered to my table, to the extent that if they delivered to my specifications I’d be drinking from a water butt. Of course this is all to no avail as four out of the five times I’ll still be left with my tiny glass (that they ‘forget’ to refill), and even then I’m lucky if that’s delivered much before the first course is finished. It seems that restaurants in the UK fail to understand that a good proportion of diners would be more amenable (and in my case almost guaranteed) to buying a bottle, or indeed several bottles, of wine if the establishment delivers a jug of water without fuss or bother of having to ask for it – maybe if this message were tattooed somewhere on my forehead I might have more luck?
As if they want to add insult to injury having not delivered water or bread to the table without some huge fuss being made of it with shrugged shoulders and looks of amazement that anyone should want to drink water that’s not fresh from a bottle, most establishments nowadays will automatically expect a tip, however dreadful the service may have been, and I dislike this approach for a multitude of reasons: first and foremost because of the lack of information about ‘service charges’ – I simply don’t believe that service charges and tips go together, especially not when the restaurants are so cagey about explaining where the money goes, I take particular umbrage with the idea of paying the restaurant for the privilege of eating in it when the service charge doesn’t go to the waiting staff directly, not to mention service charges being applied even when the service has been appalling all night; but that’s just a mere irritation compared to what really rocks my boat when it comes to tipping: the one thing that is guaranteed to set me off like a veritable Catherine wheel in the middle of a restaurant is tip expectation, and I don’t mean the smiley face on the bottom of the bill even after the service & food have been utterly lousy, no…
The thing that will set me off explosively is the bare-faced cheek of some London waiting staff who, on bringing you the card machine, place your card carefully in the bottom of the device and punch up the total into the handset before pressing the ‘gratuity – yes’ button just as they pass it to you to enter your pin. The sheer cheek of it is beyond reproach, and it’ll always end in the manager being dragged kicking and screaming from the darkness to my table to explain, apologise and refund the entire drinks bill, and that’s nothing in the scary restaurant patron stakes compared to my other half who I half suspect enjoys clipping his tones as he re-educates a manager in the intricacies of basic restaurant management.
So come on UK restauranteurs! It’s not rocket science. Stop being so tight, start treating your customers with the respect they deserve, give them the complimentary items, serve them efficiently and bill them fairly and believe it or not they’ll not only spend more, but they’ll most likely return more, recommend you more and tip more.