Humiliation with your meal, sir?

The 'Cool Britannia' hype is going to certain Londoners' heads, says James Sherwood
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Unless you are a PR, magazine editor or Michael Winner, a dinner in one of London's chicest restaurants is a treat. It's that night when you leave your mobile phone with the babysitter, slip into your smartest Joseph frock and contemplate an evening of pure, unadulterated, gastronomic pampering. You call the restaurant. An answering machine informs you rather snootily that you are being held in a queue. This may make you feel like a teenager waiting for school dinner but you dismiss it. "I'd like to book a table for... " A voice that sounds like Brian Sewell cuts in. "Tonight? You've got to be kidding. We are booked for at least three months, but there might be a 5.30pm window in September. You'll have to be out by seven. Take it or leave it."

Haven't you heard? London is the heart of "Cool Britannia" and that gives maitre ds everywhere carte blanche to act like graduates from the Princess Pushy charm school. Every new restaurant, bar or boutique is greeted with more excitement than the second coming and the publicity has gone to their collective head. "It's the old British malaise," says modern etiquette doyenne Drusilla Beyfus. "We don't like serving other people. Having said that, we don't tolerate blatant rudeness either. What we are talking about here is more subtle: something in the tone of voice or general demeanour that suggests superiority or arrogance. It is difficult to complain because you can't quite pin down their bad manners."

"Complaining in a London restaurant is like pissing in your own soup," says restaurant critic AA Gill. "Like sex, restaurants are a seller's market. There are simply more people wanting to dine than there are tables in London. If you grandly proclaim, 'I'll never eat here again,' it is music to the maitre d's ears." This begs the question of why we even bother with restaurants when the River Cafe Cookbook is in our kitchens.

Sadly, we do believe the hype when another temple to gastronomy opens its starkly minimalist doors. The food is undoubtedly exquisite, but is it worth the ritual humiliation meted out by failed actors stuck in catering? "Unfortunately, the disease is spreading," says Ollie Daniaud, who owns Notting Hill watering hole The Westbourne. "Unlike many restaurants in Notting Hill, we are not asphyxiated by our own importance. We have no truck with liggers or wannabes, but we hire staff who enjoy the vibe and don't feel trapped or servile."

Great British envy may contribute to the rudeness of waiters to wannabe diners, but arrogance is somehow encouraged by media hype and popularity. In fact, it is obligatory. At Momo, the Moroccan restaurant we are told to patronise this month, service and food are exquisite at lunchtime. Come 9pm and you are practically hustled off a table to make way for the next party.

It seems that the more you spend, the more abuse you must endure. And not just in restaurants. It always took courage to brave the walk past the immaculate assistants in designer emporiums. Now some have introduced a door buzzer so they can give you the once over. Once inside, you need a copy of Hello! with you on the cover before being allowed to view the special stock. One regular customer of such a place changed her hairstyle for the day and didn't even get past the door.

Ironically, it is well established old favourite restaurants such as The Ivy and La Caprice that continue to buck this unpleasant trend. "They take customer relations so fantastically seriously and are famed for it, " adds Gill. "And once you get a table, you are treated equally, whether you are a regular like Ralph Fiennes or it is your first time there." Good manners are, after all, neither stuffy or intimidating. The art of good manners is to put someone at their ease.

"Those insulted at restaurants take heart," says Gill. "Mark my words: when the next recession comes, 70 per cent of those new places will go out of business. The restaurant business is the best economic indicator. They are the first to open in a boom and the first to close when it all falls down. When it happens, these restaurants will fall like ants in the sun."