From double tipping to wineglass-filling fascism, some restaurant practices are certain to cause indigestion. Our restaurant critic reveals her biggest peeves.
There is almost nothing I would rather do than sit around a restaurant table with people I like. It's always a thrill, every bit as fizzy as the contents of the chilled coupes we've just been upsold. But it's not all bonhomie and bubbles: there are things that buzzkill as effectively as a sign that says "prop: Gregg Wallace". Here are my worst culprits, the grit in the mussel of restaurant-going.
Tipping and double tipping
The bill has had its 12.5% duly levied, but the card machine starts hectoring you for more cash like a crusty with a dog on a string. There is a school of thought that says you should bung a tenner on top of service if you've been properly schmoozed, but with a meal for two in London routinely costing well over a ton, I fret that if I do they'll think I haven't spotted the charge and undertipped.
No matter how often I eat out, tipping remains a minefield. I like it when service isn't included: I sing hallelujah and tip properly. Alas, there are way too many who don't: when I worked in restaurants, people would sometimes furtively cache a 50p coin under their saucers. My tactic was to run after them bellowing: "Excuse me, sir, you've left your bus fare on the table." These days I pay the service charge, hope and pray it gets to the staff and scuttle off into the night, suffused with some vague sense of guilt and shame.
Yes, I know all about the financial imperatives behind this, the necessity for businesses to keep the tills ringing in the face of recession. And I'm aware that for some there's nothing sexier than a long, hot, hard queueing session. But it's not for me: the idea that I might not end up with a table at my chosen restaurant fills me with a nameless, black panic. I've been known to sidle into the likes of Spuntino or Pitt Cue Co at unpopular hours, noon or 10.30 at night, but this is evidence of solitary vice rather than sociable interaction. Stop muttering "get a life" at the back there, and hashtagging #firstworldproblems. This is my life.
Waiters who act like your best pal
"Hey guys, how you doin'?" beams our new best pal, as though he were Joey from the Lower East Side rather than Jeremy from Swindon. He hunkers, comfy-like. There is no evidence of an order pad or new techno thingie on which to commit our order. All of which makes me want to hurtle, screaming, straight to the nearest chippie.
Nobody admires front-of-house practitioners more than I do, but when I'm with my actual friends, I don't need a new, temporary one for the evening. I do not want to be called "laydeez" or be told that the pudding course is "what you've been waiting for". I really do not want to be led to the actual Ladies and have the door held open for me with a knowing grin. Once, in Babylon, Kensington (now owned by Richard Branson), the waiter ushered me into the Gents to show me a kind of peephole into the Ladies. While I'm assured it's no longer there, there is such a thing as being overserved.
There are restaurants where they deliberately leave your wine at a remove from the table so you have no control over your booze intake. Just typing that sends a chill through my marrow: an empty glass during dinner dismays almost as much as begging to have it filled. But worse is one that's relentlessly topped up, a waiter or sommelier permanently at your elbow, destroying anecdotes and galumphing over confidences. To your horror, you discover that the bottle is magically empty and you've only just finished your starters. You order another bottle, trying not to think about the already stratospheric bill. Top relaxing evening guaranteed.
These are almost universally awful: clubby music, "clever" flash animation ("please wait while we load" ... Next!), the chef's "philosophy", stock photography of random food and a lot of waffling about seasonal and local gleaned from watching Gordon's Kitchen Nightmares. Even worse are those designed for Continental Big Names whose idea of fun is making you chase the cursor around a tableau of dancing hams. All I is want is the menu with prices, maybe some nice photos of the interior, opening hours and contact details. How hard can it be? Almost impossible, apparently.
A nice chat with the chef
When I see the chef looming over to my table, I do not think, "Goody - here's a chap who will love to hear my constructive overview of his cooking," and settle in for a nice tête-à-tête. Unless you're prepared to toe the party line of everything's-bloody-marvellous-you're-a-genius-how-do-you-do-it?, chefs are not interested in your feedback. Try telling them that the duck was overcooked, the chips tasted frozen and the asparagus wasn't local. Go on, I dare you.
An email arrives announcing a new "free-range chicken and egg" restaurant. Menu items include the Bangkok scotch egg made with minced thigh meat and Thai herbs. There's a risotto scotch egg too. I'm not making this up. I long to try these dishes almost as much as I long to swallow my own tongue.
Here are words to strike fear into any food-obsessed heart: "Prezzo opens chicken, burgers and rib concept, Cleaver." That is like telling hardcore musos that the new act is a Bieber-Swift mashup with topnotes of Perry. Or how about Tanner & Co in Bermondsey, which imagines we'd like to eat our dinner in an environment designed to reference school gymnasiums? School gyms only make me think of sweat and despair, not all of it mine.
These are "concept" restaurants, only ever the work of gym-conditioned Justin and almost-anorexic Amanda in the "ideas room" of a catering conglomerate; Apprentice candidates who have somehow escaped into the real world. People who love food and enjoy restaurants don't open "concepts". Nor should we eat in them.
Tasting menus of more than 12 courses
I have never finished one of these things sober. By course nine or so, it's all gone blurry. Because, believe me, you need that Elysium muscat to help ram down the artichoke and foraged elderberry caramelised earth. These menus are all about the chef. For the diner, they're not about pleasure, they're about macho endurance - yes, even for the gals. It's wallet-flexing, every bit as subtle as driving up in a liveried Ferrari wearing head-to-toe Burberry check. Multiple-course aficionados consider themselves way superior to someone stuffing themselves with 97 hotdogs. But by the time you're nibbling course 11, even if it is eel-skin crackers with cherry-smoked backfat, it still amounts to eating as a competitive sport.
'That table is booked'
This is my very favourite. So I've studied the hotshot new openings and booked at the first portentous "booking lines now open" tweet, pecking at my phone like a demented budgie. And still I'm led to the worst table in the house, the one facing into a corner or squashed next to the lavs. As I point tentatively to an empty table in a part of the restaurant that doesn't scream "Hahaha Siberia you loser", the reply comes: "I'm sorry, madam, that table is booked."
It makes me shrieky. How is it booked, how? Who are these people so clued-up that they not only book before anyone even knows it's open, they can specify an actual table?
Of course, the truth isn't "that table is booked", but "we're keeping it for someone better designed to exemplify the brand values of our new white-hot establishment, someone with tattoos, a beard and an artisan salami company. Or some hedge-funders.'"
77%* of restaurants outside major cities
The menu riddled with "jus" and "medley" and "symphony of"; the crescent moon side dishes of mangetout and baby corn; the salad bristling with raw green pepper; those high-backed leather dining chairs you find in the back pages of Restaurant magazine; the staff who have no idea what they're serving. Yep, we're in the provinces. And before you rage and froth and call me all kinds of obnoxious scenester consumerist chimpanzee, I too live in Not London, where I routinely put up with crooked-pinkie culinary pretentions - tomatoes carved into roses, "fennel and gnocchi salad" (truly), crabmeat packed into a lovely plastic crabshell, or, if the chef has ambitions, a dome of smoke over something that once tasted of fish - because there is little alternative. And that's before I start to rant about "food service" companies that knock up that lovely boeuf bourguignon in faceless industrial estate kitchens. No, I don't mean you, you 23%* who are brilliant, who bake all your own bread and pay your staff properly. But if you're looking for me, I'll be on the train to the Smoke.
*Statistics do not stand up to scientific scrutiny.
'The table is yours for a two-hour timeslot'
Aka table-turning. No, ta. Ta-ta.
The Tanner & Co restaurant in Bermondsey, London: who doesn't want to be reminded of school PE lessons while eating?