What is it with waiters? Why are they always smarter and better looking than me? And, if they are so glamorous, why are they gliding about with plates of other people's Tuna Teriyaki, and not sipping Martini on a yacht or propping up some roulette table in Monaco?
Thanks to Terence Conran's precedent, restaurants at the sharper end of the metropolitan market feel obliged to serve up a combination of cod existentialism and culinary total theatre. And if your food is surrounded by a Capability Brown landscape of rocket leaves and physalis, the staff, too, must be shaped by a design philosophy. Waving a huge pepper mill over the customer's lap is no longer enough to impress.
Restaurateurs are employing the services of top couturiers to give their waiting staff some high-quality cuffs to keep out of the soup. Savile- Row tailor Richard James has bestowed a bespoken look on Coast, Oliver Peyton's joint, housed in a former Piccadilly car showroom, and trousermeister Nigel Curtis has suited up the servitors at the Atlantic Bar and Grill.
Donna Karan has clothed the staff of the monstrously trendy Metropolitan bar, while Issey Miyake has uniformed the waiters at Nobu, the Met's stylish sushi-trough for the Park Lane saki set. And at multimillionaire Christina Ong's other London hotel, the Halkin, the waiters glide from table to table with Giorgio Armani on their backs (metaphorically speaking). As well as creating the front-of-house couture at The Avenue, designer Nicole Farhi has opened her own Bond-Street restaurant, Nicole's, where the waiting staff are as neatly turned out as the ladies who lunch on duck confits.
Things have changed since George Orwell's days as a plongeur at Maxims. Then, squalor was a sign of good taste: Boris, his waiter room-mate, "shaved without soap and with a razor blade two months old, tied his tie so that the holes did not show, and carefully stuffed the soles of his shoes with newspaper. Finally, when he was dressed, he produced an ink bottle and inked the skin of his ankles where it showed through his socks". It's enough to make Nobu punters drop their forkful of live fluke in horror.
Gabriel, a swish new restaurant in Golden Square, has enlisted Timothy Everest to smarten the place up. Savile-Row supremo Everest was a protege of master suitsmith Tommy Nutter, who kept Mick Jagger in lilac two-pieces throughout the Sixties. Everest himself gave Tom Cruise some lapels to be proud of for Mission: Impossible, proving you can jump through any number of plate-glass windows and still look immaculate.
Gabriel manager Jonathan Putsman praises Everest's ability to make clothes that "fit people's bodies" and agree with the establishment's guiding aesthetic: "They make the place look smart and efficient, and ensure that we're paying due homage to our classical style." His staff aren't just there to be gawped at: "They're not a bunch of sexpots, it just happens that they look nice, and that's good for business."
But, so long as they're not suffering from some suppurating dermatological complaint, do diners really care what the waiting staff look like? Will customers really shoehorn down that extra slice of tarte tatin because someone dishy is bringing it to their table?
Chris, 31, has firm ideas on the subject. "I don't give a toss how they look as long as they're not dirty and scruffy. I don't mind if they are better dressed than me if they do their job properly." Conversely, Catherine, 23, enjoys a special intimacy with the staff at Belgo in Covent Garden, whom the management have dressed up in monk's habits (they stopped short of giving them tonsures). "The waiters in Belgo's are there to chat up women so they'll drink more schnapps and eat more chips and mayonnaise," she says. "They make a lot of the way you eat your mussels, and, if you do it well they chat you up more."
Monks? Mussels? Mayonnaise? Sounds positively orgiastic. "It's verbal, not physical," she explains. "There's a Carry On element to it, which is increased by the fact that you're encouraged to get absolutely slaughtered." Catherine has been a waitress herself. "I wouldn't ever lech at a waiter offensively, because as a waitress you get so much harassment that you often get the urge to spit in some customers' soup. I've had nasty experiences with businessmen who've had too many drinks at lunchtime and think they can get away with feeling your arse as you pass their table."
At Balans on Old Compton Street, the waiters swoosh about in smart, white polo shirts. Regular diner, Nick, 23, describes the staff as "attractive in a Mediterranean sort of way, but not too foreign-looking -- they're all safely Anglicised". Like Michael Portillo, perhaps? "Well I've never seen him in there," he reflects.
Nick is blunt about the relationship between beauty and balsamic vinegar: "If you go out for a meal somewhere expensive, the waiting staff tend to be beautiful: I'm sure it's a conscious policy. And the more expensive the restaurant, the better-looking the staff. Any restaurant that opens now knows it has to cater to every aspect - food, service, decoration. It would be ridiculous to spend a couple of million opening a new restaurant and then fill it with it warty waiters. I wouldn't find it stimulating to my appetite."
Bringing you a bit of glamour with your gratin...
From left to right
Kurt, 24, from the sushi palace Nobu at the Metropolitan Hotel. Uniform designed by Issey Mikaye. "You have to wash the shirt in cold water and leave it to dry flat to get the pleated effect. We have all had a talk on Issey Mikaye grooming standards"
Mauro, 32, from the minimalist Halkin Hotel. Dressed by Giorgio Armani. "At the Halkin, we are very discreet. You have to be able to read a guest well"
Fran, 20, from the bohemian Poetry Cafe. Dressed by himself. "It's a performance - it's about presentation and image"
Emily, 27, from Gabriel. Shirts by Timothy Everest. "It's all about showmanship - you are entertaining people when you give them their food"
Gonzalo, 24, also from Gabriel. "The customers won't say, 'what a wonderful shirt', but if you have staff with only half-clean shirts or dirty fingernails, they would soon notice."
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