(Not) Paying For An Argument

Earlier in the week Sal and I happened to watch a new BBC show about food that raised an interesting question: what does it take for British people to complain in a restaurant. The show addressed this in the way that TV tends to do these days, by throwing hidden cameras at the question, and sending the two presenters undercover to provide shockingly poor service to a couple of tables of unsuspecting punters, who, predictably, accepted it all without making a fuss. Taking the show’s point that if you don’t complain, restaurant service will never get any better, we both resolved to be more assertive in future. I don’t think we were expecting to put this into practice quite so soon, but sure enough, last night provided the perfect opportunity.

We were heading out for drinks with our friends over in Notting Hill, and stopped beforehand for a quiet meal at a Thai restaurant on the corner of Westbourne Grove. The food was excellent, but the service was pitched at the usual shabby standard that is pretty commonplace in the UK: the wine was opened away from the table, for example (and, for that matter, was poured directly without us being asked if we’d like to test it), a request for a glass of iced water returned a glass of lukewarm water poured from a jug sitting out on the counter (with no ice), and my soup spoon was removed from the bowl as it was cleared away and returned to the place setting so that I could use it to serve out one of the main courses that we were sharing. All of which is pretty standard for eating out in London, and not something that would have moved me to bother complaining, were it not for what happened when the main courses arrived: The waitress put down our two main courses and our bowl of rice, and immediately whisked away the lid from the bowl, leaving us with a large bowl of rice going cold on our table as we started eating. So Sal attracted someone’s attention, and politely asked if it might be possible to have the lid back. Ours had already gone back to the kitchen, but a lid was duly found and no less than the restaurant’s owner brought it over to our table. Before we were trusted with it, however, she said this:

“You have to be very careful with this lid, because if it is left like this [holds lid upside down] and it falls on the ground and breaks, it’s gonna cost you ten pounds”

“Er, Ok…” Sal and I said, looking at each other, trying to remember if either of us had ever eaten in a restaurant before where the owner didn’t think we could be trusted with crockery. When we had finished eating, I resolved that I would have a quiet word to suggest, gently and politely, that this might not be an entirely appropriate way to talk to your customers. And so, emboldened by the Dutch courage brought on by a few glasses of white wine, that is what I did. If she had been prepared to take this on board I would have been perfectly happy, but her response was to start arguing with me, telling me how they had had many of their precious lids broken, and they didn’t have many left now, and they had to tell us what would happen if we broke it. I felt like saying (but didn’t) that what she had said had in fact had the opposite effect–it had made us feel like letting the lid fall on the floor deliberately and then refusing to pay for it just to annoy her, but instead I tried to point out that it felt a bit like we were about five years old and not to be trusted with the best china, but she just got even more argumentative, telling me that I had to be more broad-minded, and at one point saying rather sarcastically “yes, I know the customer is always right… so you can tell me off, but I can’t tell you off…?” [Er, well, yes, exactly: that’s how the customer relationship works–that’s my point]

So with that, I said that if that was her attitude then I would like to have the service charge taken off the bill, thank you very much, whereupon she snatched the bill out of my hands and took it off to the till muttering to herself and her staff. She was still muttering as we left the restaurant.