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Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Ten Dining Hates, From Hidden Tips to Rude Staff: Richard Vines

2009-01-02 00:00:01.3 GMT By Richard Vines Jan. 2 (Bloomberg) -- Eating out should be one of life’s pleasures, a mini-vacation from everyday reality in a place where charming people smile and appear to enjoy giving you a good time. Sometimes, the opposite can be true, with eateries offering dull food accompanied by service that is either inattentive or so annoyingly insincere and intrusive, it’s difficult to relax. “The Good Food Guide” today issues a list of the Top Ten readers’ complaints about U.K. restaurants and suggests that restaurateurs resolve to do better in 2009. Here’s the list, received via e-mail, along with my thoughts on the various gripes. --Double-tipping: This is the nasty habit of leaving a space for a tip on your credit-card slip after including a service charge in the bill. I consider this particularly insidious as it’s dishonest and can leave the most generous of diners feeling embarrassed and mean at the end of an otherwise enjoyable meal. --Over-attentive waiters: Having your wine or water glass topped up too frequently or being interrupted to be asked if everything’s all right can ruin conversations. In such situations, it may be difficult to find a waiter when you actually want one. --Stealth charges: This is the small print mentioning a cover charge or a charge for bread, olives or petits fours. L’Autre Pied, a restaurant in Marylebone, actually stopped asking customers to pay extra for bread because it provoked complaints. --Small portions: This is all right at establishments like Maze and J. Sheekey Oyster Bar, where you’re told the plates are small and they’re priced accordingly, so you order more, but may seem distinctly ungenerous in restaurants such as 1901. Love Hotel --Turning tables: That’s asking people to leave before they are ready because the next group of diners is ready. This is common in London restaurants like Zuma, where a table is an expensive piece of real estate you effectively rent by the hour, like a room in a love hotel. Recession may sort this one out. --Charging for tap water: I’m happy to say I haven’t come across this practice in London, though it’s common to be asked if you want still or sparkling, as though tap water wasn’t an option. I feel a bit embarrassed having to ask for the tap water, though I suspect bottled water will become more of a green issue this year. --Bad table placement: Bunched-together tables can leave you feeling you’ve had the wrong sort of intimate evening. London Venues that pack in the tables include Angela Hartnett’s the York & Albany, where you can become very well acquainted with other diners at groin level as they try to reach their seats. On the other hand, more tables can mean lower prices, which is good. Champagne Time --Out-of-season ingredients. Asparagus and strawberries are not native to the U.K. in January, so they shouldn’t be on menus, “The Good Food Guide” says. It’s difficult to argue with this, particularly as there is no season for Champagne. --Lost in translation: If your menu is in English, stick to English. Not everyone knows what sauce aigre-douce is, the guide says. (It’s a sweet and sour sauce.) In London, this problem is compounded by the fact many waiters speak with foreign accents that render attempted explanations incomprehensible. --Well seasoned: Open salt and pepper bowls may be modish, but who knows whose fingers have been there? It’s also hard to disagree with this, but I never touch the salt and pepper anyway. Chefs are paid to sort out the seasoning so that I don’t have to. To the above, I would add: No Conceptualizing --Concept menus, whereby waiters have to explain to you how to order. Dining should be about relaxing, not conceptualizing. --Up-selling, where waiters and -- even more so -- sommeliers push you to pick something more expensive than you planned. --Inattentive waiters, who like to chatter with each other or else gaze into the middle distance and fail to notice diners. --Snooty staff members, who correct your pronunciation of dishes or express surprise at your preference for wine, then vanish when they realize things aren’t looking good for tips. My own prediction for this year is that many restaurants are going to have to focus very hard on customer satisfaction if they are to survive, so I am hopeful we all can enjoy better food, better value and better service. Pass the salt. (Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)

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