I am sure this is not an unfamiliar scenario to the sophisticated readers of this newspaper. You are in a smart restaurant, and the food is just not up to scratch. Or maybe it's the service. You and your companion work yourselves up to a fever pitch of indignation, and just as you are formulating exactly what to say by means of complaint, a waiter comes to your table. "How is everything, sir?" he asks. "Very good, thank you," comes your craven response. We may have adopted some continental customs - the kiss on each cheek, rocket and Parmesan salad and coalition government - but we are still very British when it comes to making a fuss. And in the setting of a posh restaurant, our upper lips are rarely stiffer.
Not so when we get home, however. It's straight on the computer and we can tell the world precisely what we think. The Internet age has been responsible for the significant democratisation of power in many areas of life, but none more so than in the hospitality industry. Now, every hotel, restaurant, and public attraction is judged in the court of cyberspace opinion, and none is more than a few keystrokes away from having its reputation well and truly trashed. Chefs may fight for Michelin recognition and hotels jealously guard their stars, but what's said by real-life customers on TripAdvisor can have a much more meaningful impact on business.
Proprietors log on to the site with trepidation, and it's not difficult to understand why some public contributions, often under the cloak of anonymity, make them react like Gordon Ramsay when faced with a recalcitrant sous-chef. Witness the battle of the Bladebone Inn in Berkshire. A TripAdvisor exchange between patron and patron has gone viral, and clearly illustrates the power and reach of such consumer-powered websites. But freedom of speech is a two-way street, and it is highly entertaining when the owner of the establishment under attack exercises the right of reply.
So when one of the Bladebone's customers wrote (pseudonymously) an excoriating review on TripAdvisor, saying he had endured "one of the worst evenings out in a while", complaining that his beef rib was "so tough that it was practically inedible", and lambasting "incompetent and rude" service, the owner/chef of the Bladebone, Kiren Puri, responded with the full Ramsay. The amateur critic claimed he was a "foodie", but Mr Puri pointed out that he had ordered a bowl of chips as a starter, not usually the sign of a gourmand. And then he got properly forensic, digging out the CCTV of the particular evening, which, he says, establishes that the rib of beef dish under scrutiny was returned to the kitchen with "next to nothing" left on the plate.
The rude waiter on the night in question turned out to have been Mr Puri, who is clearly a combative character. He said, in his written response to TripAdvisor, that the diner was motivated by seeking "freebies and money off", and, believing he was striking a blow for restaurateurs everywhere, addressed the diner thus: "people, like yourself, are a disease upon our wonderful industry". People like yourself? Or, put more simply, customers. Bon appetit!