Last night we went out for dinner at a Mexican restaurant in London. It turned out to be a night to remember – for all the wrong reasons, including a mariachi band who drowned out conversation and kept asking for money (a bribe to stop playing, presumably); waiters who didn’t seem to speak either English or Spanish; and food orders being given to (and partially eaten by) the wrong people.
I view dining in restaurants as a treat; one of my favourite ways of spending an evening, and my hard-earned cash. But the sad fact is that each trip to a restaurant is fraught with potential pitfalls that raise my blood pressure and mar my enjoyment
Here are my top 5 restaurant pet hates:
1. "Still or sparkling?"
This automatically assumes that when I asked for water, I meant bottled water, and puts the ball in my court as to whether I am going to meekly say "still, please", or whether I’m going to make a point of saying "no, not your ridiculously overpriced, possibly imported, stuff in environmentally unfriendly plastic bottles. Just tap water, please."
I remember asking for tap water in a Johannesburg restaurant and the waiter hilariously refusing because they "had no water supply". Best we don’t ask about food hygiene, then! And when you do ask specifically for a jug of tap water, you are often told "sorry, we don't have jugs, only glasses" – as if the sight of all that tap water will make you so giddy with excitement that you will forget to order expensive wine.
2. Poncey, pretentious, or incorrect menu descriptions
There is an award every year for the most badly-written sex scene in a novel. I can't wait until somebody starts a similar award for the most pretentious, nonsensical writing in a restaurant menu.
Steaks "enrobed" in cheese sauce. Apple pie "kissed" with the flavour of cinnamon. A beef Wellington "imprisoned in a pastry cage". Or the nonsensical "pan-fried" anything: would that be as opposed to frying it in your bare hands, say? Or to distinguish it from oven-fried? And there is no way I would ever order a "cuppachino". If you can't be trusted to spell it, you most certainly can't be trusted to make it properly.
3. Untrained, disinterested serving staff
In France, being a waiter is not a part-time summer job that you do while waiting for your big break in modelling/writing/acting. It is a serious career that many people aspire to do well, and for life.
But elsewhere, you are likely to encounter: serving staff who cannot tell you anything about the menu other that what is written. Who make it clear from the start that you are VERY LUCKY to be allowed into the restaurant at all, considering how terminally uncool you are; who clear your espresso cups and then take a short trip to another galaxy while you wait in vain for your bill; or who whisk away the plate before you have finished chewing your last mouthful.
Or my favourite: a charming but clueless waitress at a Waterfront restaurant who, when I asked what something on my plate was, dipped her finger in, tasted it, and identified it as sweet potato.
4. "Discretionary" service charges included in the bill
The last time I checked, a discretionary service charge or tip was a way of rewarding good service, not an extortionate amount extracted for shoddy service. Yes, I know that restaurant staff are underpaid and depend on tips. Yes, I do tip and often more than the recommended 10-15% for excellent service.
But no, I do not want to have to make an embarrassing fuss and be branded a skinflint to get a service charge removed from my bill where the service was uninterested and sloppy. Let's pay restaurant staff a living wage and put the "discretion" back in discretionary. Wouldn't that be a radical idea?
This is the blatantly greedy practice of filling a table twice in a night – each party only gets a 2-hour slot and then gets told to leave. It's probably not a huge problem in South Africa yet, but with Gordon Ramsay's Maze opening in Cape Town next month, you can bet it's coming your way soon...
What are your restaurant pet hates?
Jeanne Horak-Druiff is the face behind the multi-award winning blog www.cooksister.com. This ex-lawyer based in London now spends all her free-time cooking, photographing and eating good food.