Friday 4 February 2011
Brian Viner: What happened to 'Are you being served'?
The BBC2 series Michel Roux's Service, like The Apprentice for waiters and waitresses, ended last night. I dipped in and out, and enjoyed what I watched, though it will take more than masterful Michel to dilute the cocktail of surliness, ignorance and apathy that these days passes for service in far too many of Britain's restaurants, hotels, shops and anywhere else where staff and customers come into direct contact.
In the past week alone, I have had three dispiriting yet grimly typical experiences, once in a restaurant and twice in shops. The restaurant, which has a Michelin star, is near where I live in the Welsh Marches. Its particular quirk is that there is no choice until you get to pudding, which is partly why I don't go very often; for me, part of the fun of going out to eat is perusing the menu, and then hoping that my choice looks at least as nice, and preferably nicer, than everyone else's. Nonetheless, the food there is terrific, and a meal there every year or two has always seemed like a treat.
Anyway, last Saturday night 10 of us went to celebrate the 50th birthdays of our friends Steve and Joanna, and had a predictably enjoyable time, with perfectly attentive service, until Steve suggested a cheese course before pudding. According to the menu, a full cheese plate was available at £8 per person, which seemed a little excessive, or a "taster" plate at £5 per person.
Since not everybody fancied cheese, Steve politely asked the redoubtable proprietress if we could have three £8 plates to share? Our previous visits had made us well aware of her tendency to make customers feel as though they're rather more privileged to be there than she is to have their custom, but still we weren't expecting a flat refusal. No, she said, we could either have the £8 or the £5 option, and that was that.
Now, I've never subscribed to the notion that the customer is always right. Some customers can be very wrong indeed. But this seemed a reasonable request from a fellow about to pick up a tab for £1,000. It was poor service, plain and simple, and 10 times worse than if one of her waiters had served us from the left rather than the right. Even Michelin-starred cooking can leave a sour taste, and I doubt whether any of us will go back.
As for my dismal shopping experiences, in both cases the same thing happened: a small shop, one selling mobile phones and the other a jeweller's, which I entered to find a single sales assistant talking to a single customer. In neither case was I acknowledged. Not a smile, a hello, or "I won't be a moment" or even "I might be a little while". Not even a glance, in fact. I walked in feeling perfectly cheerful, and walked out transformed into Victor Meldrew.
Why is Britain like this? Is it because the concept of service is misunderstood, perhaps mistaken for servility? Yet we don't yearn for deference, just basic standards of politeness and, in the case of the restaurateur, a willingness, perhaps even beyond the constraints of normal policy, to make a customer feel valued.
Heaven knows, I've suffered poor service in the US on occasion, and yet, if I had to generalise, I would say that we could learn a great deal from the way Americans treat paying customers, routinely sneered at here as the "have a nice day" culture.
I feel Meldrewishly cross that our own culture has been undermined by some truly irritating American traditions, such as trick-or-bloody-treating, and the compulsion among the under-25s to say "like" every third word. What a shame that we can't manage to import the things they do best.
An inappropriate word that I won't use again
Having dished out some stern rebukes, I perhaps ought to show that I can take as well as give. In a column on Monday, commenting on the great hopes of British sport, and in particular the defeated Andy Murray, I asserted that we Brits have a "schizophrenic" attitude to the chances of world domination by our sporting men, women and teams: part-Eeyore and part-Tigger, we tend towards extreme pessimism until we're offered grounds for optimism, and then we get terribly over-excited.
Two readers emailed to admonish me for my use of the word "schizophrenic". "I cannot imagine that you'd compare Murray's loss to cot death or a model's wiry frame to an Aids sufferer," wrote Nicholas Hunt. "Some things just aren't appropriate." Mr Hunt added that I could have used plenty of other words to illustrate my point, and accused me of inaccuracy, insensitivity and laziness. It's a fair cop. I won't do it again.
Keeping faith with the treasure in the attic
A retired chocolate factory worker aged 79 has found something much better than Willie Wonka's golden ticket. He took an old vase to an auction house, where astonished experts told him he had a Ming moonflask, dating from the early 15th century and worth around £1m. This uplifting tale follows last year's story about the brother and sister clearing out their late parents' modest home and coming across a Chinese vase that later sold at auction for £51.6m. In our attic we have an old box of cutlery, which I'm pretty sure might have been used in the 1190s by the Emperor Zhangzong. It's stamped "Made in Sheffield", but I'm not letting that put me off.
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