Friday, August 24, 2007

Service with gritted teeth

I can still remember the first time I was in America and ordered breakfast. In a voice like chocolate-coated cherries dipped in sweet wine and honey, the waitress asked me, "how do you like your eggs?" The question absolutely floored me. Nobody in my life up til then had given a shit how I liked them. You just got them however they came, usually swimming in grease with milky yokes and burnt at the edges. From somewhere deep down in my memory, I heard another voice, like James Garner saying to Doris Day, "sunny side up." Feeling as if I was about to make this gorgeous creature burst into hysterics, I screwed up all my courage and said it. Well, muttered it, without much of an idea as to what it might mean but hoping that she'd forgive a foreigner for struggling with the language. "Sure", she said, "want some coffee while you wait?" It was as if I'd made her day.

In Spain they can plonk a Cuba Libre in front of you with a wristy flourish. Italians make you feel part of a theatrical experience when they bring your espresso. Even daunting Parisian waiters in long aprons and black waistcoats act as if they're members of an honourable profession and worth their extortionate tip. Everywhere you go, service in cafes, bars and restaurants is seen as something that's a fair exchange between punter and provider. Except, of course, as we all know, here in the good old UK.

We've got two types. Both are aimed at overcoming the deep-rooted British horror of appearing to be servile. There's the scripted ("Hi, my name is Kayleigh/Kyle (eye contact)... welcome to (smile don't forget to show teeth)... how may I.. etc.) and then there's also the bogus mateyness. The first helps staff to hide behind a set of words devised by a team of expensive PR consultants, the other cunningly gives the impression that the waiter is not actually an employee at all but is doing you a favour as pal to pal. This is the one that grates on me the most. It's usually done with a, "there you go".

"There I go!?" Wtf does that mean? I see the food or drink on its way and can pretty much guess what's coming next, and sure enough, "there you go" dribbles out of their mouths before I can stick my fingers in my ears. Too late to leave the place, the stuff's on the table. You won't see them again till they come back and say, "is everything all right for you?" See.. they've done it again. "... for you". What that really means is, "this food is perfectly OK - but are you the sort of stuck-up sod who nit-picks?". If you say anything critical at this point, it will be taken back into the kitchen for the chef to spit in it before sending it back out.

Radio Five Live presenter, Phil Williams, told the tale on his show the other night of how he'd put a bogey on the ice-cream of an awkward customer, and watched as he ate it. "Yeah but", he explained, "I was only 17 at the time." Oh well that's all right then.

Actually, para 3, sentence 1 is wrong. There's a third type of service now. One of the benefits of educating everyone to the point where they've got so many A levels that they'd rather be on the dole than get a job that's beneath them, is that the service sector is now staffed by Eastern European doctors and physicists who can earn more working here as waiters than doing their real jobs back home. So if you find the right place (oh, and Australians are excellent, too) you can get served in the real sense of the word.

Not many have found their way out here in the wilds of Lincs. yet though. Still, it's a beautiful day for a change. So tonight it's out with the patio-heaters, and on with the barbie. Anything but eating out.


Swearing Mother said...

Went out for a curry recently and every time the waiter took an order from us, he said "if you are trouble I'll put it on the bill". ???

Obviously, we then had to be trouble to see if he WOULD put it on the bill. He tried, but we were ready for him! AHA!

All Shook Up said...

Well spotted!