Respectful Insolence

Here’s another random observation that hit us quite rapidly upon our arrival in London and is reinforced almost every time we decide to dine out:

Why is restaurant service here so crappy?

We’ve been to several restaurants now, and only one of them (ThaiSquare near Trafalgar Square) had reasonably good service by American standards. I have to wonder if it had something to do with the fact that we were out with a former postdoc of mine and her husband, both of whom are natives, her having moved back to London after finishing up in my lab. A second restaurant, Bertorelli on St. Martin’s Lane had adequate, although by no means speedy, service. Oddly enough, both restaurants also had the best food we’ve experienced since our arrival.

At pretty much every other restaurant that we’ve been to, the service has been substandard at best and terrible at worst, and that included and that included the one Indian restaurant in the city that we hit that, contrary to the reputation of Indian restaurants in London, happened to have just so-so food. However, it also had absolutely atrocious service. (Even Boswell‘s wasn’t that hot in terms of service–just adequate.) No one seems ever to check to see if you’d like a refill on drinks or even water. Once they’ve brought you your food, it seems, the wait staff decide that you’re completely taken care of and move on. Then, when it comes time to have the bill brought, on more than one occasion I’ve wished I had a flare gun to send up a distress signal to get the server’s attention. It’s gotten to the point where we actually go to Starbucks now for our breakfast because we don’t want to waste all the time it takes to get a real sit down breakfast, particularly since we’ve been rather bad about getting early starts. For lunch, we now think that hitting a pub where you order food at the bar and pay in advance is becoming the way to go.

Once again, this is a small sampling and anecdotal experience, but from other comments in some of my other brief posts about my visit and after having been here five days, I get the feeling that this is more than just bad luck or a poor sample size.

Comments

  1. #1 Josh
    August 29, 2007

    The english don’t like to be bothered. Generally you get your food and they maybe check that it’s okay after 5 minutes, but other than that I think most of us prefer to be left alone to eat.
    Also, as a former waiter, the tips here are horrendous. When we used to add up after serving about 50 people (around £500 or $1000 worth) we’d often have as little as £10-20 to devide between us. Not a great incentive to customer service.

  2. #2 MartinC
    August 29, 2007

    No, its not simply bad luck. Good service is not a priority in many establishments in England – in particular those that get tourists as customers. Tipping is not as widespread compared to the US so waiting staff don’t put in so much effort – since they probably wont get a tip whatever they do and the customer most likely won’t be back anyhow.
    And don’t send the meal back to the kitchen – you’ll be getting a free portion of phlegm when it comes back from the chef.

  3. #3 PaulT
    August 29, 2007

    Having recently moved to the US from the UK, I’m seeing the differences from the opposite point of view. I hadn’t really paid it much attention, but I’m guessing the unwritten understanding in the UK is that the staff keep out of your way and keep interruptions to an absolute minimum while you’re dining. This is all very well and good, but sometimes it can take more effort than it should to get their attention when you do need something. The distress flare is a great idea, and I would recommend it for a couple of restaurants I’ve been to.

    Compare this to some US restaurants, where the waiter or waitress will stop by the table every couple of minutes. “mmmfle oog arrarr snork ump”, you say, which roughly translates as “I’m fine, thanks, this mouthful is just as good as the last one you asked me about. And no, I don’t need a new drink yet, as I’ve barely started this one, but thank you very much!”

    I’m not sure which I prefer!

  4. #4 MartinM
    August 29, 2007

    Well, it’s somewhat related to your previous post on politeness; Brits just don’t like to complain.

  5. #5 dc
    August 29, 2007

    I think it’s probably because you’re American. Nobody likes Americans anymore.

  6. #6 Twenty shillings to the pound
    August 29, 2007

    Josh is right about us Anglos being reluctant tippers, but there is no way I’m going to tip if the service (or food) is lousy. Good service first, tip second. A waiter might be grumpy because they have been getting bad tips, but being surly with subsequent customers guarantees that the situation will persist!

    A second issue is that in Britain tipping is something toffs did; us working class oiks don’t really have it in our culture.

    Bad service is not just a British problem though; French folk sometimes brag about how good their waiters are but I’ve walked out of restaurants there when it’s become apparent that the staff have no real interest in taking an order (and presumably will be no more attentive later on). Sometimes the staff get a bit more animated when they see the mark upping sticks!

  7. #7 MikeB
    August 29, 2007

    In that case, restaurants don’t like Brits either…

  8. #8 SteveF
    August 29, 2007

    Thats pretty much par for the course; good service, North American style, is the exception rather than the norm. I wouldn’t let it bother you too much, it’s just the way things are over here (there are of course exceptions). If you think British service is bad, try going to Greece.

    Go to a Carluccio’s cafe for breakfast if you fancy a sit down. There are quite a few of them (one in Covent Garden) and service is generally pretty reasonable and the food is good.

  9. #9 Ahcuah
    August 29, 2007

    OK, so try the following next time you go to a restaurant there.

    Tell the waiter that you are an American and you are used to tipping 15%, but only if you get good service (nudge, nudge, wink, wink, know what I mean?).

    It would be interesting to see if that made a difference.

  10. #10 Donalbain
    August 29, 2007

    I would like to stick up for the British waiters and tresses. As was said earlier, it is a matter of different expectations. I, and most people I know who have experienced it, HATE the American idea of service, which I interpret as bothering me while I am eating. If I want a refill, I will make it known. If something is wrong, I will let you know. In the mean time, I came to a restaurant to engage in conversation with my friend/lover/futurelover/loverwhoisdumpingme, not to talk to the staff.
    On the subject of breakfast, you are going to completely the wrong places. If you can see through the window because it is clean, then dont eat breakfast there. Two words for you: Greasy Spoon.

  11. #11 Dan
    August 29, 2007

    What you see as lousy service, has been my experience everywhere in Europe I have been. But it is not seen as lousy service. What I get here in America seems like lousy service. The waite staff bothers you every 5 minutes asking if everything is OK and the impression is to get you out of there as quickly as possible to make room for the next customers. You are even given the bill BEFORE asking for it. Kind of like saying pay and get out now!!

    In Europe, particularly Germany, it is customery that the waite staff will come soon after you arrive and take your order. They may come once after you have been served. But in Europe people generally go out with family or friends and stay for the entire evening. So you have the same table all evening. If you want another drink or whatever, you wave or call yourself to the waite staff’s attention. You do not receive the bill until you ask for it. No one will bother you if you stay additional hours without ordering anything else. This is considered polite. Tips are usually minimal. Here in America, the waite staff kisses butt, bothering you all the time in an effort to extract a larger tip. If it looks like you are not ordering anymore, they offer the bill, to get you out so more paying (tipping) customers can replace you. We Americans (especially East Coast) need everything fasted paced. Get in and out as quickly as possible. It is unusual to spend an entire evening in a resteraunt simply talking to friend or family. Thats what bars are for.

  12. #12 Ginger Yellow
    August 29, 2007

    I think it comes from both sides. On the one hand, most Brits don’t have much expectation of customer service and prefer not to be bothered when eating so don’t complain much when it’s bad, which it usually is. It’s not just restaurants – apart from the poshest fashion shops, you don’t get greeters/personal-shoppers and most supermarkets don’t have bag stuffers. A British supermarket chain would look at Walmart and think it was being hideously wasteful spending all that money on employees. On the other hand, nor do Brits tip much (especially at pubs/bars), so you can’t blame the staff that much. On the third hand, you can’t take tips out of wages here like they do in the States, if they’re paid separately from the bill. Never ever pay a tip using a credit card for that reason.

  13. #13 akaoni
    August 29, 2007

    Looks like you have to chalk this one up to a bit of cultural difference. For what it’s worth, after living in Japan for a couple of years, I felt like service just about everywhere in the states was substandard and rude. It’s all a matter of perspective…

  14. #14 potentilla
    August 29, 2007

    Also, your sample is skewed. Trafalgar Square/Covent Garden/Strand is prime tourist zone, so lots of places will not be worrying about whether you will ever come back; also there are quite a few places that don’t really have to try any longer because they are institutions (Bertorelli’s is one). My hypothesis is that you will get better service around there the more expensive you go – maybe you could try the Savoy Grill, purely in the interests of another data point?

    ThaiSquare is a chain, I think, so they probably have a bit more interest in customer loyalty/return customers.

    But all the people mentioning that’s a cultural preference thing are right, too. It used to take me a while to adjust to be “bothered” all the time by wait-staff when I used to travel to the US on business. Then it seems odd when you get back.

  15. #15 akaoni
    August 29, 2007

    Looks like you have to chalk this one up to a bit of cultural difference. For what it’s worth, after living in Japan for a couple of years, I felt like service just about everywhere in the states was substandard and rude. It’s all a matter of perspective…

  16. #16 Dirkh
    August 29, 2007

    Works both ways:

    A European couple I heard about felt that they had been insulted and outraged at a fine American restaurant when “after a mere hour and a half,” their server slammed the check on their table and stalked off. The Europeans felt they were being shown the door in an outrageous manner. Different styles: To many Europeans, if you don’t have 2 hours to spare for the meal, why in the world are you eating out in the first place?

  17. #17 itsjustanalias
    August 29, 2007

    On the whole ‘Brits don’t tip’ thing. We don’t, it’s true. But I think that’s because of a larger unease about displaying or discussing money. For example, in a pub, you don’t tip, you buy the barman a pint (he may not have the pint, he may put the amount in a tip jar) but the important thing is there is no obvious money involved.

    Historically we (the working and lower middle classes) are not good with service, we were the ones who usually did the serving. The upper classes don’t tip because one doesn’t tip the ‘help’ they’re just doing their job.

    I suspect if you tried the suggested ‘I’m an American and I usually tip 15%’ you might get additional indifference. Unless the server is Polish, Aussie, Hungarian, Russian…

  18. #18 wintersweet
    August 29, 2007

    akaoni,I was going to make a similar comment. Places I ate in Japan and Taiwan had a nice medium degree of “bothering” during a meal–usually ready to come over if you caught the server’s eye. The staff was usually cheerful during ordering and bill payment, and would usually strive to overcome my language difficulties if I tried to ask for a substitution. Now THAT’S good service.And guess what? NO TIPPING. (of course, the staff there aren’t being paid less than the minimum wage, like they usually are in the US.)

    For visitors to the US, please don’t feel you have to leave a restaurant if they put the bill on your table. In fact, you can still even order dessert and so on and have it added to your bill at that point. Do not feel that you are being rushed unless someone comes over and actively rushes you (in which case, complain to the management [unless you've been there for 4 hours and have only ordered coffee!]).

    I do hate it when waitstaff constantly inquire as to how I’m doing, though. Go away!

  19. #19 derek
    August 29, 2007

    Do you think you could you be a more stereotypical American tourist? Complaining that the service isn’t good enough is a start, but I was thinking you could wear tartan shorts and a baseball cap as well. :-)

    On the lower tipping thing, it’s also that being a waiter is viable with the 10% average, because they’re paid a better wage in compensation, and health care is free for everyone. I was reading that story about the American politician who was chewed out on a blog by a waitress because he OMG only tipped 10%! like it was the next worst thing to slavery. I was confused, because while I understand 15% is the average over there, it didn’t seem like that big a deal. Then I reflected that it probably is that big a deal, because waiters get a far lower wage, and they have no health care. If I was living that close to the edge, I’d fawn all over my patrons too, and be outraged if I didn’t get the vital 15% that would keep the wolf from the door.

    British service was much better in Victorian times, but as a son of the working class, I’m not hankering for those days back again.

  20. #20 uncle
    August 29, 2007

    Several things to remember about eating out. You are trusting someone with your health when you eat out. Unless you are eating in a fine dining restaurant never piss off the kitchen. Also the service has nothing to do with the quality of the food, it is not as if the server can do anything with your food other than serve it. Remember that your “staff” is a person first and foremost, not your servant. In the US waiters are given the expectation of attentive service by the customers themselves, after all we want you to have a good experience, our livelihood depends upon it. Remember that restaurant prices reflect the cost of living in the area, and as such 15% of what you can spend on a meal is a fair wage for the waitstaff. Our $3.50 an hour wage from the restaurant is eaten up by the taxes we pay on our credit card tips (tip cash if you can). We are (un)lucky if we get a check for anything by the end of the week. When you travel someplace don’t bring your expectations of service from where you are from (when in Rome). After all part of traveling is experiencing the culture you are in, and you should attempt to abide by the customs of where you are.

  21. #21 coz
    August 29, 2007

    As a Aussie living in the US and have worked for the first time ever as a waitress, I tell ya getting paid less than $4 per hour…(omg I still can’t get over how crappy low that is) tips is what makes you money. Your employer doesn’t pay you, your customers do.

    In Australia and Britain, tips don’t matter as much. I still have to get used to having a single server (and being one) in the US. Other servers won’t make eye contact with you because its not their table.
    Yes, it can be weird and annoying sometimes but they are probably getting paid much better than in the US (omg! $4/hr) and don’t need to fawn over your every bite.
    Enjoy, stop whinging and have another pint.

  22. #22 Doug
    August 30, 2007

    In general I have always found the food and the service in England to be amongst the worst in the world, and have always put it down to them being English…

  23. #23 baryogenesis
    August 30, 2007

    Where I live, generally customers look for a “balance”. I know that might sound weird, but a wait-person who keeps topping up your water glass every time you take a sip, is definitely annoying. On the other hand, if you are trying to get attention and the wait-staff if in a huddle in the corner or outside having a smoke and your persistent signaling is to naught, then that too is annoying. A good waiter/waitress will notice if your drink is low (say, below a third of a glass) and will approach. Much has to do with management and training of staff . It doesn’t have to be uptight, but of course should be an enjoyable experience both ways. Balanced service-good tip. “god”, am I anal? (I used to own a restaurant).

  24. #24 Soren
    August 30, 2007

    I will echo the sentiments from many of the non-US commenters.

    The waiter takes your order, brings the drinks, brings the food, and perhaps asks once about our experience. Anything beyond that is just the waiter being annoying. You don’t eat out to talk to waiters, and its not that hard to fill up your own glass. If the waiters fills my glass I’ll suspect he is trying to get me to buy more drinks.

    One thing I have found across the board in the US is this – most restaurants do not change your cutlery between courses!

    I’ve tested it many times. When I finish my entree I place the cutlery correctly on the plate to signal the staff that I have finished the course. They then take the cutlery, and place it on the table, only removing the dirty plate, not the dirty cutlery!

    We made a sport of checking for this once in New Orleans, and not once in our week long stay did the staff give us new cutlery! This was in cheap places and 100+$ places.

  25. #25 Orac
    August 30, 2007

    I will agree that there is a balance to be struck, and too intrusive is just as bad as not attentive enough. But come on. It shouldn’t be necessary to try to clothesline your waiter, American football-style, as he rushes by just to get his attention.

    It makes me wonder: Don’t these places even care about business and making money? When one wants another beer for example, his glass being nearly empty, and it’s too much effort to get a waiter’s attention to order another one, sales are lost. Heck, there have been at least two or three occasions here already when I would have ordered another pint had the waiter simply been accessible but instead, after waiting and trying to get his attention, decided not to bother with it. Perhaps it is cultural differences; perhaps it is crappy tipping, who knows? But one would think that for a simple business basis, owners would want just a little more attentiveness in order to sell more drinks and food.

    One other thing that non-U.S. commenters should note: In most American restaurants, for soda, iced tea, and other non-alcoholic, non-fruit juice drinks, refills are free. Consequently, when a waiter comes by and asks if you want a refill, it’s not to rack up more of a charge.

  26. #26 hinschelwood
    August 30, 2007

    This thread reminds me of the routine in “I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue”, where an over-attentive waiter pesters the guests:

    Man: “Darling, I’ve got something to say to you.”
    Waiter: “Fancy a roll?”
    Man: “I’ve got a …”
    Waiter “Knob of butter?”

    Etc.

  27. #27 Jeff Rubinoff
    August 30, 2007

    My central London dining experience is pretty much limited to the Chinese places off of Shaftesbury Ave, and both service and food there were excellent. Oh, forgot the Korean places by St Giles. Also excellent.
    My limited English English dining out in London has been limited to gastro pubs in Greenwich, Islington and Camden Town and everything there was fine if overpriced IMO.
    You should also hit an Indian restaurant on Brick Lane, near Liverpool St. station. That’s ground zero for classic Punjabi and Bangladeshi Indian food.

  28. #28 Jeff Rubinoff
    August 30, 2007

    Double-posted because I forgot pie and mash at a pie shop in Camden Town…

  29. #29 Ginger Yellow
    August 30, 2007

    Orac’s got a point. While some of the difference is due to (legitimately) different cultural expectations on the part of customers, American businesses are far more geared to customer service. I suspect it’s because of the complaining thing – as a culturally British American I used to be constantly embarrassed by my mother making a scene about something, where I would have let it slide.

    “Double-posted because I forgot pie and mash at a pie shop in Camden Town…”

    Castle’s? It’s great value, although I suspect the food might not be suitable for American tourist tastes. It’s more of a regular visit place. There’s another great value place in Camden – the Bento Cafe – which is an extremely rare combination of great Japanese food at cheap prices. The best cheap Chinese place near Shaftesbury Avenue is Cafe du Hong Kong on Charing Cross Road. The main courses are a fiver and they have an amazing range of fruit drinks.

  30. #30 ursula
    August 30, 2007

    I suggest you have some Irn Bru.

    I enjoyed my last eating out experience (beg of Aug) and was actually surprised by the courteous and friendly staff.

  31. #31 G. Shelley
    August 30, 2007

    It is mostly cultural expectations. I find American service irritating, but wouldn’t like to be totally ignored. Most UK places, the waiter will check once during the meal and is easy to attract for beer/wine. Getting them to give you the bill can be a bit harder, but it is still really just a case of waving at them as they go past. If you don’t do this, you’ll be waiting half an hour to be asked to pay, but I’ve had the same at Indian restaurants in Ann Arbor

  32. #32 MikeB
    August 30, 2007

    Personally, I would take the US service culture (even if it is of the ‘Hi, I’m Brad and I’ll be your server tonight – here is my life-story’ type stuff) over the British ‘do I look interested?’ And it is almost certainly due to cultural differences – we don’t really complain(at the time).

    Ginger Yellow’s embarrasment at his mother complaining about poor service struck a cord with me. My mother’s from Central America, and spent a lot of time in the States and Canada before coming to the UK. She does exactly the same thing. My English father almost dies of embarrasement every time. On the other hand, she gets much better service….

  33. #33 Jimmy_Blue
    August 30, 2007

    Yes I know its terrible. The rest of the world isn’t America. How dare there be differences in attitude, service, style, emphasis, business practice, language, literature etc etc?

    If you don’t want to experience the rest of the world, stay at home.

    If you want to visit somewhere like America, visit somewhere in America.

    As a Brit who moved to the US a few years ago I can say there is a lot to be said about not having some over friendly, superficial spotty teenager pretending they are your best friend and interrogating your every mouthful with the zeal of the Spanish Inquisition.

    Your tip isn’t proportional to the number of times you interrupted me, now sod off.

  34. #34 Dr Aust
    August 30, 2007

    Echo many of the comments here about the differences in US and UK waitperson style. The most perceptive comment was about Brits really wanting a kind of “balanced” service. You don’t want the waiter obtrusively appearing every 5 min to ask if they can et you anything else, but on the other hand (as Orac says) you don’t want to be having to lassoo (rope and hogtie for US readers) the waiter to get another bottle of wine, or a coffee, or the bill.

    I think the commments about “deep in tourist country” is also relevant. If you want to eat uptown in the tourist areas anywhere in the world, you need a serious foodie guidebook, or local info, to get gold rather than dross reliably. The restaurants in such zones don’t need to try hard to get customers or repeat business, so you will only get keen service if they are really working for tips. This is why most locals don’t eat in these places, at least on their own tab, and why recommendations from your friends, preferably for places that aren’t near Leicester Square, are the way to go. I wouldn’t eat around Covent Garden if you paid me, unless someone I trusted had been there recently and swore the restaurant was good.

    If you’re still in London, Orac, the Saturday and Sunday newspapers are a good source of newspaper “tips” on good eateries. And “gastro-pubs” are the in thing.

    We Brits do tip, BTW, but not as lavishly as Americans. My personal rule of thumb is:

    OK service – 10%, give or take.
    Really good service (helpful, non-obtrusive but attentive, quickly spot when you’re trying to catch their eye, there when you want them) – up to 15% if they’ve done well
    Lousy service – go progressively down from 10% as low as you feel appropriate.

    A final comment – sadly, ludicrous mark-ups on ALL drinks are a big part of restaurant profit margins in the UK. You can expect the wine they serve you to be being charged at at least 4X the wholesale price, and a pound a soft drink is nearly universal. If I were you I would ask for a large jug of tap water with ice and lemon, which is the only thing the restaurants have not yet figured out how to charge for.

    If you get too pissed off, Orac, you could always try the Pizza Express chain. Their “American Hot” pepperoni and Jalapeno pizza, accompanied by a couple of Peroni beers or a bottle of one of their Italian whites, is my personal standby when on the road in an unfamiliar UK city.

  35. #35 Ginger Yellow
    August 30, 2007

    “If I were you I would ask for a large jug of tap water with ice and lemon, which is the only thing the restaurants have not yet figured out how to charge for.”

    Au contraire. Some put the tap water in bottles and charge you for it as if it were spring water.

  36. #36 blf
    August 30, 2007

    I like the “European” ethos of minimal interaction as opposed to the USAian model of seemingly-constant interaction. Nonetheless, with the caveat that Orac’s apparently been going to places in the heavily touristed areas, which are not all that representative, I tend to concur London–as opposed to British–waiting is not too good. In addition to the “don’t like to tip” and “don’t like to complain” reasons, two other reasons I’ve heard in the past are:

    (1) The “British”–and perhaps especially the “English”–confuse service with servility.

    (2) Waiting is not a profession in the UK (unlike, say, France or Italy (allegedly)).

    There might be something to both of those points. I found waiting in the UK outside of London to be decent, and to get better the further you went from London (with some excellent experiences in Scotland and N.Ireland). Even so, on the whole, UK waiting is not as good as here in France (where I now live; I lived in the UK for c.12 years, c.6 of them in London). However, like London, Paris touristy areas can be a problem.

    And it always helps to be “known”. I get much better, but not at all intrusive, waiting at places where I am a known regular.

  37. #37 Orac
    August 30, 2007

    Yes I know its terrible. The rest of the world isn’t America. How dare
    there be differences in attitude, service, style, emphasis, business
    practice, language, literature etc etc?

    Oh, puh-lease, give me a friggin’ break.

    I’ve had a wonderful time here and love London; I was merely making an off-the-cuff observation. On the one hand, I’ve gotten a number of useful comments trying to help me understand the difference, be it cultural, the way wait staff is paid, or other factors her in the UK. On the other hand, there are comments like yours, which are defensive and completely unhelpful. As for the your comment in another thread mentioning my “complaint” that there are no squirrels here, you really need to lighten up a bit. I can understand why some might be annoyed about my complaints regarding service in restaurants, but that post about squirrels was just a random observation that struck me as odd, and I wondered if I was missing something. Yet you somehow managed to perceive it as a “complaint.”

    Dude, chill out.

    Just FYI, a friend of mine here, who grew up in London but lived in the U.S. for five years, confirmed many of my observations. She also assures me that service is even worse on the Continent, but I haven’t been to Europe since I was too young and too poor to dine out.

  38. #38 TSK
    August 30, 2007

    : She also assures me that service is even worse on the
    : Continent, but I haven’t been to Europe since I was too
    : young and too poor to dine out.

    Erm, UK is actually Europe (But I understand that Britons may give the impression that they heavily object to be counted as Europeans :-D). Anyway, it depends where are you going and what do you expect. For me personally a perfect waiter is:

    -When I come in: If I am alone and hungry, he serves as fast as possible (If he is fighting with the whole football
    team, well, that means waiting….). If I come with a guest and we are talking while taking a seat, he waits until there is a break to slip in.

    -He asks politely what do I want and remembers it perfectly; no repeated inquiries. If I seem unsure, he asks for my preferences and offer me some dishes which suits my taste.

    -The meal is served fresh and exactly at a timepoint when the talking ceased a while because we are ready to eat. During eating we are *only* interrupted when we look up because we need something else and like a shadow he comes at once and fulfill our wishes. If we complain (fly in the soup), he apologizes and orders replacement.

    - When we indicated that we have finished by putting the dish away/ the cutlery on the dish etc. he comes with the bill and asks if everything was alright. Perhaps adding a dessert.

    If that is ok for you, there are some good restaurants available in every big city (I speak only for Germany; in France there are good ones in the smaller cities; Paris was horrible for waiter quality). If you accept some weaknesses, your choice is drastically increasing. Naturally, bad restaurants are still many, but fortunately they die out pretty quick.

    -Serving iced water seems to be a American unicum; it is comparable to serve mint sauce on a table in a burger shop.

    One thing:
    I got the slight impression that for Americans visiting a restaurant is equivalent with:
    - In-Serve-Eat-Pay-Out with maximum food for minimal pay
    for customers and
    - Maximum win for restaurant owners

    But the continental model is different. Eating is just a sideline for going out and meeting partners and friends, talking with them and enjoy the afternoon/evening. So you not only want food; you want it good, served in a nice, quiet place. You don’t consume it, you relish it. Price is secondary if the environment and the food have very good quality.

  39. #39 luca
    August 31, 2007

    I haven’t been to the US, but in Europe, it’s up to the man to refill the woman’s glass when starts to get empty. It’s courtesy, and I’ve seen that girls appreciate it, and don’t think you’re trying to get them drunk. In some good restaurant, though, the waiter will re-fill the glasses with the wine you’ve ordered if he sees it’s necessary, without you asking. This especially happens when you’re a large group (15-20+) so that a single waiter is devoted to serving you.

  40. #40 Soren
    August 31, 2007

    One thing I find repugnant is the American way of (not) paying the waiting staff.

    You are expected to tip your waiter, because your tip is a part of his salary.

    What this does is that it in effect makes each waiter an independent contractor. Besides his job of serving food in the restaurant, he is sharing the risks with the restaurant owner. If there are no customers then the restaurant makes less money and so does the waiter.

    I’m a consultant and I would balk if I was offered a contract that said that my pay was $3 an hour and if I want more, then I should ask the customers for tips. As a salaried employee I expect a fixed amount, proportional to my value in the marketplace.

    The restaurant owner in the US can keep his prices down, relying on the fact that at people in the restaurant will pay at least 15% above the prices, and if they don’t the owner is not inconvenienced.

    It is overall a stupid demeaning practice, and I am glad we do not have it in Europe (at least not in Denmark).

    Sure if we get good service we will tip, but if we don’t tip the waiting staff can still afford their mortgage.

  41. #41 Cody
    September 1, 2007

    “Also the service has nothing to do with the quality of the food, it is not as if the server can do anything with your food other than serve it.”

    Like hell! Tell that to the waiter who took 45+ minutes to bring me a bowl of ice cream. Tell me: do you prefer your ice cream to be frozen or soup?

    Orac, I recently visited London as well and wrote up my experiences. I’ve also noticed the knee-jerk defensiveness of some Brits.

    “How dare you compare one aspect of our two cultures and come to the conclusion that your culture’s version is superior! Don’t you realize, sir, that you are, in fact, a jerk?”

    Bleh. And it’s really not that hard to strike a nice balance in service, one that I think most American restaurants have already done (with the notable exception of TGI Friday’s): sit the customer down, quickly take their order, and serve their food as soon as it’s ready. Regarding refills, the server should come by and silently refill any drink which is clearly in need of a refill. At this point, if the customer needs anything else, they can ask the waiter right then and there, including the check when the customer is ready to leave. The customer tips accordingly, and everyone is happy.

  42. #42 Jimmy_Blue
    September 2, 2007

    Oh, puh-lease, give me a friggin’ break.

    No.

    Orac,
    Amongst many others, one stereotype of the British is that their food is bad and the restaurant service is worse.

    One perception American’s like to believe and do like to brag about is that their food is good and the restaurant service better.

    One stereotype of American’s is that when they are abroad they want eveything to be like it is in America.

    Your post described typical service in any restaurant anywhere in Britian (with exceptions of course). Instead of asking why there was a difference though you immediately asked why the service in London was crappy. Not different, but crappy. You did get explanations for the difference, but it isn’t what you asked for. You wanted to know why it was crap. Its a loaded question like asking ‘Have you stopped beating your wife yet?’

    Your response to recieving treatment different to what you get in America, was then to go to food chains that use the American model for service for some meals . In other words, London’s restaurants weren’t American enough for you, so you went to some American ones.

    Your immediate position was seemingly that because it was different to what you are used to, it was not very good. How does that not make you sound like someone who simply wanted American service just in another country? That’s no better than the annoying British tourists who go abroad and eat steak and chips in pubs owned by ex-pats.

    Off hand observation or not, it made you sound like a stereotypical American tourist.

    Cody why do you assume that it is knee jerk defensiveness? Do you think there is nothing legitimate in those complaints, no matter how forcefully, rudely or arrogantly put?

    In my job for the past year I have had to deal with many people who are travelling outside of the USA or have done so recently, and again and again I hear the same complaints which all amount to “The rest of the world isn’t like America therefore it isn’t as good.” So trust me, there is nothing knee jerk about my reaction, I hear this crap everyday.

    Your post merely reiterates what some of these Brits are being defensive about after all, since you assert that the correct thing for a server to do is the American way of doing it.

    You know, the rest of the world is allowed to do things differently, and yes sometimes they even do it better.

  43. #43 Ginger Yellow
    September 3, 2007

    Pshaw. Some of it is merely difference in culture, but I can say as a Londoner that service in most London restaurants (if you’re not a regular) is pretty crappy. I’m the epitome of the “just give me the food, stop pestering me” customer, and I still get annoyed with slow/inattentive service on a regular basis. Mostly when trying to pay the bill, which has always struck me as bizarre.

  44. #44 Cody
    September 3, 2007

    I hear the same complaints which all amount to “The rest of the world isn’t like America therefore it isn’t as good.”

    I’m fairly sure that’s a stretched truth. I’d wager what you hear is “This particular thing bothered me, I’m glad they don’t do it that way in America” and you exaggerate it to “I hate everything about the rest of the world because it’s not like America.”

    Cody why do you assume that it is knee jerk defensiveness?

    Because I made one specific criticism of London service written with tongue thoroughly implanted in cheek, and out came the tired (and rudely put) suggestions for me to stay home if all I really want to do is experience America. I refuse to believe Brits can’t take criticism, especially one so utterly trivial.

    It’s obvious to anyone who travels that some things are going to suck while other things won’t. Who really goes somewhere else and thinks, “Wow, everything is better here, I mean absolutely everything!”? Part of the fun of the trip for me was comparing the different aspects of the countries and sharing my preferences with whoever cared to read them. I’m just sick of this “You publicly announced your displeasure with a certain part of our culture, fuck off” attitude.

    You know, the rest of the world is allowed to do things differently, and yes sometimes they even do it better.

    Yes! By all means this is perfectly true observation. I can wax romantically all day about London’s near-perfect public transportation, something which is tragically absent where I live. But why can’t Brits seem to turn this statement around on themselves? Some countries do things better than others, and in this particular, singular, isolated instance America comes out on top. I mean, I can understand not wanting to be bothered every five minutes, but do Brits really prefer waiting 45 minutes for their food to arrive?

  45. #45 Melissa G
    September 6, 2007

    There’s a reason Douglas Adams wrote The Meaning of Liff:

    “EPPING (participial vb) The futile movements of forefingers and eyebrows used when
    failing to attract the attention of waiters and barmen.”

  46. #46 Jimmy_blue
    September 27, 2007

    Cody:

    I’m fairly sure that’s a stretched truth. I’d wager what you hear is “This particular thing bothered me, I’m glad they don’t do it that way in America” and you exaggerate it to “I hate everything about the rest of the world because it’s not like America.”

    So your response to someones related experience that conflicts with your rose tinted world view is to call them a liar? Very mature of you. ‘You relate criticism of America, therefore you must be stretching the truth.’

    No, I can’t imagine where Americans get the reputation that I and others get annoyed about.

    I guess when I heard someone complaining that instructions on a bus in Rome weren’t in English like in the US I must have been stretching the truth in some sort of pre-cognisant way, right?

    But nevermind, don’t let that get in the way of your ‘USA, USA’ preconceptions.

    I mean, I can understand not wanting to be bothered every five minutes, but do Brits really prefer waiting 45 minutes for their food to arrive?

    I lived in Britain for 29 years and never waited 45 minutes for food in a restaurant. But you go ahead reinforcing tired stereotypes if that’s what you want.

    Nope, can’t imagine why people might get annoyed with your attitude. Mystifying.