Standards of service in restaurants are slipping, according to a survey of diners who sit at some of the finest tables in the land.
Low wages and low status; the reluctance of the English to serve; and the arrival of eastern Europeans with poor language skills are all to blame, say chefs and restaurateurs.
The worrying state of the nation's waiting staff is revealed in an annual survey of 8,500 readers by Square Meal, the glossy celebrity guide to haute cuisine in London. Half of the complaints that the magazine received were about poor service, a rise of 7 per cent on the previous year.
"My profession is at a miserable point," bemoaned Silvano Giraldin, maitre d' at Le Gavroche, the two Michelin-star outfit in Mayfair, central London. "We can't get English people to wait – one out of 20 people in my brigade is British. We can hardly get French people to wait. So, of course, we have to import from eastern Europe and, of course, there is a language problem.
While acknowledging the problem, the chef Tom Aikens expressed his gratitude for the arrival of eastern European workers. "The English feel they are too good to wait tables – it's not seen as a serious profession," he told Square Meal. "Frankly, if we didn't have the staff from eastern Europe we would be in the shit."
According to Alain Lhermitte, owner of Mon Plaisir in Covent Garden, the decline of tipping may have removed the incentive for waiters to be as attentive as they once were. The rise of the service charge and the fact almost all bills were now settled by card rather than cash were denuding staff of a reward for good service, he added, remarking: "In the UK, it's easy for the customer just to press a button and not consider the quality of the service."
Many waiting staff receive the minimum wage of £5.52 an hour, an annual salary of about £10,500.
Bob Cotton, chief executive of the British Hospitality Association, which represents 11,000 restaurants, acknowledged there was a "real problem" with standards of service – but he pointed the finger at the rise of celebrity chefs rather than low pay.
"All the youngsters coming in want to be the next Jamie Oliver or Gordon Ramsay and want to go into the kitchen. You can't think of anyone who is a role model for a head waiter or a maitre d'," he said. "Whereas to have a great meal, having good service is as important as what's coming out of the kitchen."
The proliferation of restaurants brought on by the boom in eating out may have diluted the pool of talent, added Mr Cotton. "There are 10 times more restaurants in central London than there were 20 years ago, and with that comes the problem that, whilst we don't have problems finding people to work in restaurants thanks to the influx of eastern Europeans, people are looking at it not as a career but rather as a job for a year or two."Reuse content