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

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The Independent Online
"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.