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Cape Town restaurants: Where diners pay good money for bad service

Why has the level of service in SA's most food-focused city dropped?

by: Marisa Crous | 15 Mar 2017

When did Cape Town restaurant service become so bad? I like to think that I’m pretty easy-going.
When it comes to restaurants, I’ve had a lot of experience. From the age of 14, I worked in them, both locally and abroad. I know what it feels like to spin so badly that you’d prefer the sweet release of an aneurysm rather than the sweaty, discombobulated, almost obnoxious situation you find yourself in during a mad service.
The checklist is always just too long – and you don’t even have a pen. Sometimes, literally. I once used a pen cap to scratch down someone’s drinks order.

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I also love eating out. Especially the discovery of a new place, the vibe, and most importantly...what the bathrooms look like! I mean, the food. Of course.

But, like they say, people come back to a restaurant for the service. They remember the way they were respected as guests. In the past year, I’ve felt disrespected in Cape Town restaurants. I’ve felt unwelcome, like an inconvenience, as if the waiter or manager was doing me a favour by “allowing” me at their establishment.

So I saw myself cower and apologise as I became conditioned to switching to an almost apologetic mode upon entering restaurants.

“…sorry for needing another glass of wine, sir. I couldn’t make my first one last the full 2 hours. Shame on me.”

Seriously. Don’t you want to make money?!

I want to give you my money, but you snub my humble request to drink five glasses of Cab Sav on a Tuesday night. The art of the upsell has certainly been lost.

So what got me yanked from this mode was a friend telling me about the excellent service she’d recently received at The Short Market Club. Well, yes, of course, a place of that calibre. ONE.WOULD.HOPE.

But in that moment I struggled to think of any restaurant, whether highbrow or humble, I’d been to in the past few months where I absolutely loved the service (except for Wolfgat and my eternal favourite, Mulberry & Prince).

One where things happen the way they are supposed to, i.e. one where you don’t miss half your friends’ conversation because you’re too busy craning your neck to see where your waiter has disappeared to.

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I don’t want to be faffed over, I just want my drink to arrive before my dessert does and to have a steak knife instead of a blunt butter knife when I’ve ordered the steak! And, preferably, to get my toast when my bone marrow main arrives…not 20 minutes later.

And please just give me a Cape Town bar with more than one helpful bartender on a packed Friday night. Jeez man, a 30-minute wait for a glass of wine is not what I’d call pushing product.

But even when service doesn’t go according to plan, I don’t want the staff to make me feel like just another stupid customer, or worse, lie to me. Recently, a waiter repeatedly told us that our meal was “being plated” as we speak. The plating took almost an hour.

So, upon reaching a complete and utter state of gatvol-ness, I decided to flip the switch: speak-to-the-waiter mode, engaged. As a package deal, it came complete with a frown (from me) and disdain (from the waiter).

Not usually someone to be petty and point out others’ mistakes or a starter of ego-driven debates to prove my point, I don’t want to be taken for an idiot either (especially when I can see my waiter is clearly high AF).

So I point out: you lied about this plate of food, you must’ve gotten the order wrong, and now we ate a vegan bean business instead of a delicious bowl of Caesar salad.

But every time I complain, I am met with the same contempt; the ignorant smirk that inquires, “Why are you even here?”

And I don’t want to be like that Whale Cottage lady, but I think some things, especially when you have a limited budget to experience all the lovely places the Mother City has to offer, are simply inexcusable. Even in season.

This is not like we’re playing restaurant-restaurant! If Cape Town wants to play with the best, then up the game, dudes. Otherwise I’m just going to have to become UberEats’ number 1 customer.

I know the irritations that come with dealing with restaurant customers from a waiter/hostess and manager’s perspective. The customer is not always right, but you as restaurant staff have to at least attempt a Daytime Emmy-worthy performance, just to keep the peace.

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As a waiter, one of my worst-ever customers was a guy whose licked-clean plate was, apparently, ‘inedible’. This naturally prompted him to demand it be taken off the bill. Inedible, you say? Yet, I smiled and waved. Some battles are better fought in silence.  

I think we tolerate lax service because, as Capetonians, we want to be cool. Chilled, man. No worries. You don’t want to be THAT anal-retentive one who might or might not be eating mostly spit by the end of the night.

But my point is this: I want to go out, I will pay, I will tip 15% or more, I will be super nice and not ask for my curry sans garlic or go to a 7-course seafood tasting menu lunch and demand a vegan meal. I am normal.

And it’s not necessarily the waiters’ fault either: it’s the system, the approach. It’s the way complaints are treated – with an utter lack of respect for the customer. Rather than seeing them as constructive, they are handled as a nuisance and therefore immediately disregarded.

Which has me asking, ‘Where has good old hospitality gone?’

Have you dined out in a Cape Town restaurant recently? SHARE your thoughts below in the comments section...


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