Being polite to restaurant workers is not something that should be applauded. It really is just basic humanity at its simplest: be kind to the person who is working their arse off to bring you nice food. Have some empathy when shit goes wrong. Understand that we all fuck up sometimes. Unfortunately, humans are arseholes so this is not always the case. Often the average diner fails to be even vaguely kind, let alone downright friendly. The customer isn’t always right, because quite often the customer is a prick.
Now I’ve got that off my chest, we can examine why, when placed in any dining scenario, I’m so desperate to charm every waiter/waitress/bartender/maitre d' I come across. Why do I sit there all saccharine, flinging out ‘No worries,’ ‘All good,’ and ‘Hahaha isn’t my dining companion so difficult?’ commiserations at even the vaguest hint of tension. If not that, then why is it that, when something goes blatantly wrong, I nod agreeably and pretend everything is hunky dory? Why do I spend my entire meal acting as if I’m the one being paid to be there (ignoring the fact that this is my job and therefore sometimes I actually am)?
I am the first to acknowledge the ridiculous luck that comes with being able to eat for free and call it work. It is one of the greatest joys in my life, and something I will never, ever take for granted. But it also highlights the importance of remaining anchored in the fact that for most people, they’re paying an arm and a leg to have that meal – money that a lot of us simply don’t have to spare right now. When a large proportion of your dwindling expendable income is being wilfully spent on somewhere you’ve purposefully chosen to visit from among the hundreds of thousands of possible restaurants, you should leave feeling like it was money well spent. That, even if just for a couple of hours, you were able to leave behind the outside world and settle into a place where there’s no washing up to be done, the food is incredible and the wine is even better.
When a large proportion of your income is being spent on somewhere you’ve chosen to visit, you should leave feeling it was money well spent
Good service is such a powerful thing. I’ve been to meals where the food was fine but the people serving it were so warm and wonderful that it elevated the entire experience. I’ve eaten at places where the food has become an afterthought because simply existing in the space has been so uncomfortable that what I’m eating ceases to matter because I’m so desperate to leave. The way you’re treated when you go out to eat makes the difference between a good meal and a great one; a lovely evening and one you couldn’t run away from sooner.
The restaurant industry is facing, among other things, an acute staffing shortage. The perfect storm of Brexit and Covid meant that a once-flourishing sector is now desperate for staff because so many of its workers have left the country, and those that remained often found job stability and satisfaction elsewhere. It’s a crisis occurring at all levels; from large corporations to independent eateries, senior management to trainees. It does, therefore, require sympathy and patience. Often your waitress might be new to their job, new to the industry, or perhaps run off their feet thanks to being supremely understaffed. But at what point is this patience meant to run out?
Over the last few months, more than ever, I’ve found myself overcompensating at a meal when the last thing I should be feeling is unwelcome. Last I checked I haven’t grown antlers or turned into an almighty gremlin (yet, anyway, give it a few months), and while there’s definitely a small fortune in it for the psychologist who can help me get to the root issue of why I’m so desperate to be liked, there is a general trend towards dining experiences losing their warmth. A recent conversation with a friend who works in the industry was filled with similar stories. She told me about a meal at one of last year’s hottest new openings, where, she jokes, she went to the bathroom to check if there was something in her teeth or a stench under her arms because they treated her like “a bad smell”.
There’s definitely a small fortune in it for the psychologist who can help me get to the root issue of why I’m so desperate to be liked
It’s reminiscent of some kind of bad skit, the grumpier my server is, the chirpier I get, like a terrible dashboard dog, nodding along to everything. I want them to understand that I’m not one of those arseholes. To communicate that I understand, I used to work in hospitality too! I get that it’s shitty sometimes and that people suck and that things go wrong! Even though, the whole time, I kind of just want to scream like a banshee, walk out and take refuge in my own home. Instead, I stay, shrinking myself down with every frigid drink delivery or po-faced order-taking, hoping the whole experience will end sooner rather than later.
I love this industry. I love eating out. It’s the whole damn reason I do this job. But part of writing about food is holding the industry up to the light and encouraging it to do better so that the average consumer doesn’t end up feeling short changed. When I’m not eating out for work I am the average consumer, and that rare occurrence of wishing I had just stayed home has been increasing. It, for lack of a better word, sucks.
A fellow journalist on a trip this week told me that, after 30, “your ability to give a shit nosedives.” I’m envious of the feeling and, while I have a good five years to go before that happens, I’m going to try and carry the energy into my murky mid-twenties. If you need me, you’ll probably find me in the corner of some restaurant, looking a bit constipated while I desperately work up the courage to tell the waiter that “I actually ordered the pork, not the beef, please, thank you, really it’s no problem at all.”