The maitre d' was all polite smiles. He would not be smiling for long. The service charge rebellion was beginning.
In the 1999 edition of The Good Food Guide, released today, the editors suggest that their readers, the restaurant-goers of Middle England, rise against the tide of service-charge hypocrisy. Restaurants, particularly those in the London area, regularly add 12.5 or 15 per cent to bills, dubbing it an "optional charge" in the near-certainty that customers will pay the full total regardless of what they think of the service.
The guide, published by the Consumers' Association, says restaurants should leave service "to the customer's discretion", or include it in the menu prices. "There's no way the restaurant can do anything to you legally if you don't pay the charge," said Jim Ainsworth, the editor. But how easy is it to put the theory into practice?
The Connaught Grill Room, one of London's most exclusive establishments, adds a 15 per cent "optional" service charge to its bills. The service was, alas for the experiment, as cosmic as the prices. With typical main courses such as homard d'ecosse en gelee Connaught at pounds 35, it was easy to see how a meal for two with wine could come to pounds 200 - plus service.
The young waiters shuffled chairs back and forth, refolded napkins and reloaded glasses with gusto. It was going to be hard to justify divesting them of their tip money.
Presented with pounds 64 to pay for the new total of pounds 63.20, with the deduction of the service charge, the maitre d' returned politely to the table and pointed out my mistake. "I never pay service charges; it's a matter of principle," I said.
He thought for a moment, said, "No problem sir", and asked me to write on the bill that my refusal was nothing to do with the standard of service. "I'll be asked why, by the manager, otherwise," he said.
But didn't he and the staff mind not getting the tip?
One member of staff approached. "We don't get the money. It goes to the house," he said. So the 15 per cent service charge was really just a tax on diners which the waiting staff never saw? "Makes no difference to us," he said.
The restaurant manager approached to ask why Sir decided not to pay the service charge; confronted with the same reply, he responded, with cool professionalism hiding a hint of pique, "Very well sir, it is your prerogative." The staff was just as polite on the way out as on the way in. Victory was so easy it was an anti-climax.
Duncan Palmer, the hotel's general manager, confirmed that "it makes no difference to the waiters" if a customer declines to pay the charge. But he added: "We formulate (the sums) all into the accounting system and they do receive it in the end, because we pay them a very fair wage."