HOW LUCKY we are to live in Cool Britannia, enjoying the best and hippest that the world has to offer. How lucky we are to be flocking in our thousands to restaurants, clubs and shops that are the envy of the rest of the world. Or could it be true that the lucky ones are the restaurateurs, shop owners and club promoters? After all, there are more eager punters running around waving money at them than they can deal with. Hence the flip side of Cool Britannia: Rude Britannia.
In Rude Britannia you don't have to try too hard to be a crowd-pleaser, because the outraged squeaks of unhappy customers will hardly be heard in the throng of new clients beating a path to your door. Trendy restaurants are the greatest offenders. They can be forgiven, perhaps, for greeting attempts to book for the same evening (or the same week) with barely-concealed derision; after all, it's not their fault they are insanely popular. But snubbing people who are forking out considerable sums to sample their ambience is less understandable.
For example: in the bar in the Avenue restaurant, a chic, glass-fronted Piccadilly eaterie on St James's Street last week, an innocent request for a napkin was met with the extraordinary rejoinder: "I think you'll find there are plenty in the Ladies," followed by (sotto voce) "You'd think she would have worked that one out for herself." And a diner at Wagamama, smart Japanese noodle restaurant and proud pioneer of Japanese eating in London, was amazed and shocked recently when, as he attempted to pay at the cash desk, a waiter snapped at him,"I hate people like you who clutter the place up," before storming off in a snit. ("That's outrageous," agrees Ian Neill of Wagamama. "If a member of staff acted like that we would find out why - we wouldn't condone such behaviour. I don't believe it happens on a regular basis.")
One of the biggest bones of contention is restaurants which pack two sittings into an evening; take a table in the early (ish) evening and you will be expected to leave in time to make room for those coming after. And the speed of service doesn't always match the speed at which diners are expected to vacate: stories are legion of people attempting to gulp down expensive meals in minutes, as the next generation of "guests" cool their heels at the bar.
Even politely checking there is time to complete your meal without causing chronic indigestion or undue stress to the restaurant staff doesn't always work, as an aggrieved diner at New Cultural Revolution, minimalist Chinese eaterie on the King's Road, found out. "A friend and I came in quite late and asked if we were still okay to eat - the waitress said fine. But she insisted that we took our starter and main course together, as it was a bit late and the chef would get cross if he was kept. She then kept coming up to us telling us to hurry up and finally tried to grab my plate whilst I was still eating! I said I hadn't finished and she resentfully shoved it down in front of me saying she didn't care, it was late and we had to hurry. We had probably been in there all of 30 minutes!"
Meanwhile, at the Pharmacy, Damien Hirst's new Notting Hill venture, and the poshest, newest and trendiest of all, a birthday Sunday lunch ended in dejection when, having made a booking and given their telephone number, one couple turned up to find the restaurant closed and deserted. When they called the next day to demand an explanation, a staff member airily explained that the restaurant had changed its policy on Sunday opening. "Don't you think you should be apologising?" asked the irate husband. "Well, it's not my fault," came the insouciant reply (further complaining did produce the restaurant manager, who charmingly invited them for a free meal).
Shops are a different matter. It's oh-so-easy to snoot without doing anything overt enough for customers to complain about; elegant staff who cast an ironically unwelcoming eye over those dressed by Marks & Spencer are quite enough to make visiting designer stores a nerve-wracking experience. Some take the snoot factor to the limit; Voyage at Brompton Cross has progressed from buzzer-on-the-door/no prices on the clothes status, to issuing membership cards to its exclusive clientele.
As for clubs, making punters queue round the block before letting them in (or, indeed, not letting them in) is just the start. Over-booked big- name DJs may flit in for a half-hour set or not turn up at all. "Some clubs treat you really badly; they herd you about like cattle. They search people, which is understandable, but it's the way it's done," reports one clubber. "Often the bouncers seem to be beyond the promoter's control - if you phone to complain, you just get the management, and they always come down on the side of their staff."
So: how do you stand up for yourself in Rude Britannia? Avoidance may be the only tactic. Sophie Grigson, an expert cook herself, and the Independent on Sunday's restaurant critic, refuses to eat anywhere if she is told she has to vacate her table at a certain time, and has been putting her foot down ever since a meal at Chez Nico. "We kept being reminded we had to leave and it was ghastly," she says.
She believes there are two types of restaurateur. "There are those who genuinely love
good food and there are those who set out to create the latest, coolest place and want to reap their investment while the going's good. The thing I really resent is where the restaurant is about design and the rest is crud and they get away with it."
Steve Beale, editor of the underground magazine Sleaze Nation, also recommends looking beyond the flavour of the moment. "Complacency is rife in clubland," he says. "Clubs might be the spirit of the age when they open, but when a club is a success it rests on its laurels and keeps running long after the rot has set in and it's a dinosaur. Treating people badly should never happen, but some promoters will take any opportunity to be complacent and ill-mannered as long as they have the cocaine vibe." Everyone is allowed to think they are a star, he says, as long as they don't tread on other's toes. "Clubbing is about illusion. It's very easy for people to con themselves they're having a good time, particularly if they are reading that they should be - and it's the big places that get the magazine exposure."
"Like people, some shops use attitude to make up for a lack of talent. I have no time for either," says Annalisa Barbieri, contributing editor of the Independent on Sunday, and editor of Real Life's fashion pages. "Any shop that discriminates is too up its own arse. Shops are there to provide a service to the customer. It would be fun to see how quickly these snotty places would change their attitude if everyone stopped coming in and the rent man was knocking on their door. But ha! he wouldn't get in."
Rude Britannia is the in-your-face tip of quite an iceberg; manners, generally, are simply not trendy. "People have begun to think that manners are an affectation; they believe that naturalness is more appropriate and getting rid of manners makes life more natural and free," says Anthony O'Hear, professor of philosophy at Bradford University. Professor O'Hear, who contributed an essay to a volume entitled Gentility Remembered, published by the Social Affairs Unit think tank, believes the opposite is true. "Manners actually give a basis for people to know how to behave; they prevent uncertainty and all kinds of unpleasantness." Commercially, the answer could lie in another recession. It will take a buyers' rather than a sellers' market to quash uppity Rude Britannia.