Rhiannon Harries: What to have? Why not start with service with a smile...

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The Independent Online

One area of my finances which I can't say has taken too severe a hit in the recession (unless, of course, you happen to be the person with whom I discuss the state of my bank account at NatWest) is my "entertainment" budget. By which, I'm afraid I mean what I spend on the ephemeral pleasures of eating and drinking out, rather than anything with a lasting intellectual or spiritual legacy, such as the theatre or a good book.

If anything, I feel less guilty these days about forgoing a supermarket meal deal in favour of letting someone else do the hard work thanks to the slew of discounts that even the most chichi of establishments have been forced to embrace.

Pre-crunch, I was suspicious of (OK, maybe a little snobby about) restaurant deals. Going to a snazzy eatery just wasn't as much fun if you had to declare your discount voucher before you'd sat down and then had to choose from a limited menu. And surely your obvious penury would make you a second-class citizen for any waiting staff with their eye on a decent tip.

When slashing prices suddenly became standard practice, however, there was less chance of feeling like a poor relation. You could have your half-price cake and eat it. Except, recently, I've started to think that maybe you can't.

It's not the quality of the food that has disappointed, but the grumpiness with which it is being served. Maybe it's just summer malaise that has turned many of the waiting staff I've encountered in the past few months into die-hard misanthropes, but I'd hazard a guess that as tips have dried up, so has their enthusiasm.

At a local café, a cosily styled place where one might expect to find Juliette Binoche serving up life-affirming treats, I made the mistake of asking how much a cup of tea was. "It's a pound. For now!" snapped the owner menacingly, apparently outraged that I was taking advantage of what she considered a knock-down price.

But it was on a late-afternoon visit to a posh deli that I witnessed the apparent nadir of service. "You'll have to have a paper cup because we're closing!" barked the barista. We realised we had got off lightly, as he proceeded to hang a large blackboard on the door to put off further customers which, like something from a surrealist play, said in foot-high letters, "NO!"

No matter the quality, or indeed price, of the food or drink on offer, it's service that decides whether a meal is an enjoyable or hellish experience. The British have never been celebrated for their attitudes to paying customers, but if this is the shape of things to come, we might even outstrip our Parisian neighbours in the contempt stakes. We got the Olympics – surely this is one contest we really don't want to win.