Yes, the British do complain, and no, they're not always right, as a restaurateur's legal victory shows
What a palaver. Media coverage this week of a case heard in King's Lynn county court on Monday over a disputed restaurant bill of £349.40 was way offtrack. This was not the occasion to indulge quite so coyly in the stereotype that the British diner does not complain. Nor was it legitimate to illustrate articles about the case with cartoons of cleaver- wielding chefs. It was all very simple. A pill of a customer got his comeuppance.

The facts are these: Michael Stanley, a retired lecturer from a nearby market town, took a party of six to Rococo, a four-year-old restaurant in King's Lynn, for a New Year's Eve supper. After initial verbal complaints, he cancelled the cheque four days later and posted another to the restaurant, this one for £79.40 for the wine they had consumed.

Accompanying the cheque was a detailed complaint. The food, he claimed, had been cold, fatty, dry, tough and (worthy of Woody Allen, this) served in small quantities. A guest had grease spilled on a new silk blouse, he said, and his wife had been sick later. Mr Stanley decided not to pay for the meal.

The proprietors of Rococo took him to the small claims court, in the words of the chef, "on the principle of the thing". And the chef got his money back, plus £27 court costs.

The principle was that customers should complain while they are in the restaurant, not after. Another motive, no doubt, was professional pride. Rococo opened four years ago, after an ambitious young chef named Nick Anderson moved from London to King's Lynn in order to raise a family with his wife, Anne. They converted a rather ancient house opposite the market and proceeded to do very well: first a glowing review from the Independent, then a handsome series of entries in the Good Food Guide, in the New Year a red "M" in the Michelin guide and only weeks ago a good crit in the Times.

Other customers who ate the same set dinner on the same night as Mr Stanley backed up Mr Anderson. And it transpires that another restaurateur, at The Moorings in Wells-next-the-Sea, had taken exception to Mr Stanley complaining about a meal and had christened him "Bad Stanley".

Complainers can make a career in the service sector a living hell, yet the week's media coverage did not so much as touch on this. The consensus was that the British somehow don't complain, which is pure nonsense. The British complain all the time. The problem is that even those with short fuses too often do it late, by which point irritation can become fury. They nod obediently when a waiter inquires if everything was all right, then hiss and boo among themselves and friends, usually energetically. As Fay Maschler, the distinguished restaurant critic for the Evening Standard, pointed out, they even write to her about restaurants she has never heard of, and never reviewed.

But restaurateurs may see this week's court decision as more than censure for delayed-reaction apoplexy. It was, in effect, a brave assault by a young, hardworking chef on the absurd notion that the customer is always right. Who said this first? Why do we cling to it?

Mr Stanley had his own specific reasons for withholding payment, but there are plenty of persistent professional complainers around. A skilled waiter can spot one a block away. He or she is one for whom nerves, a suspicious brand of ignorance about cooking and the need to impress are greater than the appetite for food and fun.

The episode at Rococo tells us something else about the British in restaurants. Mr Stanley was hosting his daughter's 21st birthday party, on New Year's Eve no less, and any father would have been anxious for a perfect evening. I have no ideas about whether the family and friends were convivial at table. However, if they were not, it would not surprise a professional waiter. For where is it but restaurants that we take our rebellious teenagers for graduation parties, our silent wedding anniversaries, our embarrassing little sessions to ditch lovers, and the greasy corporate clients we would not allow across our own thresholds?

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