The silence of the (off) lamb: a guide to English restaurant etiquette

Share
Related Topics
"The English are very good at grumbling, but very bad at complaining," said restaurateur Enzo Appicella once.

What did he mean by that? Luckily, I was in his presence when he said it, so I could ask him to explain himself.

"Well," he told me, "I know from having run restaurants for many years that the English hate to come to the management with their complaints. They will mutter at the table about how badly cooked, or cold, or inferior, their food is, and they will go on muttering and whingeing, and they will show their displeasure by not coming back but the one thing they will not do is cause a fuss by complaining out loud there and then."

"Isn't that nice for you?" I said. "Doesn't it avoid involving you in unpleasant scenes?"

"No, it is not nice for me," he said. "If something is wrong, I want to know about it. I don't want people to depart in silence and never come back. I want people to complain more! Otherwise I may never discover what is wrong."

I think he is right. I think as a people the British - all of us - are nervous of complaining vociferously. We moan but we do not have the courage of our moaning. We would often rather leave the food untouched and have the plate taken away than make any comment. I think I have only once in my life sent a bottle of wine back, and it was quite justified because it was horribly sour and sharp. The waiter took it away in a flash and brought another one. It tasted exactly the same.

"Fine," I said, nodding him to pour away.

Well, I couldn't send back two bottles in a row, could I? I'm English, aren't I?

The only time I can remember being in a restaurant where complaint became vocal was 10 years ago or more in York, in a very posh restaurant, which I am sure has been wonderful ever since then but which that night served a lamb dish in which the lamb meat was beyond doubt dangerously past its eat-by date. At first you don't believe that you have been served something so poisonous - you think that maybe it is meant to taste like this - but I was finally pushed by increasing nausea to complain to the waitress and was amazed to hear a chorus from nearby tables of: "Yes, mine's off too," and "I'm glad somebody else thinks it's off!"

About half the diners, it turned out, had ordered that dish and everyone had been thinking independently that there was something wrong with it. Nobody had liked to complain. But as soon as someone did complain, it opened the floodgates of communal displeasure, and the whole dining room became friends, united by this bond of rebellion. I can even remember swapping addresses with the couple at the next table, though needless to say we never got in touch again. We are British, after all.

(I say that the whole dining room became friends. This is not quite true. There was an elderly man in the corner with his mistress who was, as far as we could tell, a judge, and was clearly very drunk, so drunk that he remained completely unaware of the uprising going on round him, and also oblivious to the way in which everyone was listening to his conversation with the equally plastered girlfriend.

At one point one of us dared to ask her if her main course was all right. She blinked and said it was some of the best chicken she had ever eaten. The judge said: "I thought you were having steak, dear." She said: "Am I? Oh, yes, so I am!" and they went off into peals of laughter and retreated back into their own private drunken world ...)

Needless to say, this accident-prone meal is fondly remembered by my wife and myself where other better meals have faded, in the same way that you remember that picnic with the wasps and the ants more clearly than all the others, and in the same way that we British remember the ignominious debacle of Dunkirk more than almost any other event in the Second World War.

I have suddenly remembered that this article was going to be a cold, hard analysis of my current complaints, which are about waterproof hats and mobile phones. Tomorrow in a very unEnglish way I shall tell you how I became an ex-Orange mobile phone user, and how I wish I had an address to send my Driza-Bone hat back to.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Cameron faces the press as he arrives in Brussels for the EU leaders summit on Thursday reuters  

On the Tusk of a dilemma: Cameron's latest EU renegotiation foe

Andrew Grice
John Profumo and his wife Valerie Robson in 1959  

Stephen Ward’s trial was disgraceful. There can be no justification for it

Geoffrey Robertson QC
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture