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No Sacred Cows  
Toby Young
Friday 10th December 2004

Soup in my hair, snotty waiters and a rip off--just another night in London restaurants

The news that some of London's top restaurants get nil points for service comes as no surprise to me. As ES Magazine's Restaurant Spy, I'm the canary that's sent down the mineshaft to see if it's safe for ordinary civilians to venture forth. I have been kept waiting for half-an-hour, only to be told to hurry up and finish my food. I have seen 12.5% added to bills that have included dishes I got, but didn't order, and dishes I ordered, but never get. I have had soup deposited in my hair and hair deposited in my soup. In short, I have served as a Kleenex to literally hundreds of snotty waiters. Forgive me if I'm feeling a little green behind the gills.

According to a the latest edition of a restaurant guide called Square Meal, some of London's most fashionable restaurants, including The Wolseley, Cipriani, Yauatcha, Fifteen and Chez Gerard at the Opera Terrace, provide the worst service in the capital. "London beats Paris hands down for its restaurants," says Gaby Huddart, the editor. "But in France service is as important as the food and I'm not sure we've got that in London."

My worst experience to date was at Cecconis, supposedly one of the best Italians in the country. I was there to sample its famous house specialty: risotto made from rare white alba truffle. A week earlier, Prince Andrew, Bill Clinton and Kevin Spacey had made a pilgrimage to Cecconis and run up a bill of over £500. I wanted to see what all the fuss was about.

I'm still scratching my head.

To begin with, I was seated in an area that was so close to the kitchen, if I'd sneezed half the restaurant would have caught a cold. White truffle risotto wasn't on the menu, but my waiter told me it was available if I was prepared to wait 25 minutes and pay a supplement of £45. I duly ordered it, only to be confronted with a plate of orange gunk half-an-hour later. It turned out the waiter had brought me pumpkin risotto by mistake.

When I asked him to take it away and come back with what I'd ordered he looked extremely put out and explained that if I wanted the white truffle risotto I'd have to wait another 25 minutes. I resigned myself to sticking with the orange gunk, but asked the waiter if he could possibly take it off the bill. He thought this suggestion was so ludicrous he actually burst out laughing. Sure enough, when my bill came it included an £18 charge for pumpkin risotto--and 12.5% that had been added for service. Chow!

I suppose I should have been thankful for small mercies. Some of London's top restaurants, such as Hakkasan, now add 13% for service. It may seem petty to complain about that extra half a percentage point, but it all adds up when you're being charged top prices. The total bill at Hakkasan came to £209.50--and that was for two people. Even though this included the 13% service charge, the waitress included this figure in the "Subtotal" box on my credit card slip--an old trick designed to dupe customers into paying the service charge twice over.

At least Hakkasan doesn't charge customers for the privilege of booking a table. Jamie Oliver has recently hit upon a new way of screwing customers out of even more money at Fifteen. A couple of weeks ago I called the reservation number in an attempt to book a table and was surprised to be put straight through to a recording of Jamie himself droning on about the virtues of his "charitable" venture. After a while, I was told that if I pressed the number one on my phone I'd be put straight through to reservations. No sooner had I done that, though, than Jamie's voice started up again: "Nice one guys. Now, as you may know, Fifteen is a social venture that trains professional chefs to mentor and train unemployed youngsters..."

After I eventually got through to someone, I was tartly informed that the number I'd dialed was a "special rate" number and I'd just been charged over the odds for the pleasure of hearing Jamie's voice. I asked if there was an alternative number I could use for future reservations and the answer, needless to say, was "no". Nice one Jamie. Pukka!

Of course, not all of London's fashionable restaurants treat their customers so high-handedly. Luke Johnson, the Chairman of Caprice Holdings, may not be over-fond of restaurant critics, but I've never had any complaints about the three jewels in his crown: the Ivy, the Caprice and J Sheekey. The staff at these restaurants are trained to treat everyone like royalty--not just Prince Andrew. The reason customers keep coming back, year after year, is because the service is as special as the food.

Apart from the sheer rudeness of mistreating paying customers, there's something terribly shortsighted about it. Restaurants like Cipriani may be ultra-hot at the moment, attracting an A-list, celebrity-studded crowd, but what happens when the smart set moves on, as they inevitably will? In the long term, a restaurant is completely dependent on the repeat business of ordinary people--and if you treat them like second-class citizens they're unlikely to come back. Will Cipriani still be around in five years time? I doubt it.

One of the hallmarks of the information age is that everything seems to be getting faster and faster. These days, a "star" goes from wannabe to world famous to has-been in the space of about six months. It would be a shame if the lifecycle of London's top restaurants began to follow a similar trajectory. Celebrity chefs might be able to eke out a living as contestants on reality shows like I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here, but what would become of all those snotty waiters? Perhaps it's time they stop treating their customers like so much tissue paper, to be used up and discarded at the end of the night, and start showing them a bit of respect.

The Evening Standard

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