Ah, Sydney. You’re a beautiful place and I am proud to live in you. But your restaurants have got a few bad habits that you need to tell them to stop immediately. To help you out, I’ve listed them below. Don’t thank me now, just make it sunny next weekend.
1. Acting like they’re doing you a favour
Welcome to Sydney in the year 2014. A run down semi underneath a flight path will set you back close to a million dollars, and it can take up to an hour to travel five kilometres on a bus. It’s a strange time. Most strange of all, however, is a bizarre trend emerging in the food scene in which the customer is a major inconvenience to a restaurant. Forget the days of old where the customer was always right and the restaurant would do anything to please them, now we have to beg for a table and feel like competition winners when we receive moderately decent service. This is pretty much how I feel every time I rock up to a restaurant:
“Hi… (realising they aren’t going to ask me how I can be helped)… I was hoping for a table for two. For dinner.”
“Have you booked?”
“Your website says you don’t take reservations.”
“No but we do recommend calling ahead.”
“Umm ok well I’ll remember that for next time. So do you have a table for two?”
“Well you’ve left it very late.”
“It’s 5:30pm. It’s not even dark yet.”
“Hmmm well there’s an 85 minute wait for a seat at the bar and a three hour wait for a table with four legs.”
“Oh, are you sure there’s no other option?”
(Sigh) “Look I could put a table in the outdoor toilet, or you can sit at separate tables with other diners. But that’s all we can do at this time.”
“Ok. We’ll take the toilet option. Thank you so much for your help and sorry to put you out.”
“That’s fine just don’t do it again.”
But it doesn’t stop there.
“Hi, thank you so much for coming over to take our order. Could I please have the ravioli, but is there anyway you could not put the porcini crumb on top? I’m deathly allergic to mushrooms and my throat will close up if I eat them.”
“SIGH. Look I’ll have to check with the kitchen on that.”
“Ok but it’s not a central ingredient, couldn’t they just leave it off?”
“As a rule we don’t allow changes to the menu.”
“Could you just ask?”
“Thank you so much, I really appreciate the effort. I don’t want to cause any problems for the kitchen, but I’d just prefer not to go to hospital on my 25th wedding anniversary…”
Ok, I admit some of this has been exaggerated for dramatic effect, but you get the point. When did the balance of power shift from the customer to the restaurant? We have the money, why do we put up with feeling like we’re causing major hassles? Are we so starved of decent places to eat that we just take what we can get? I have no answers for these questions, but I best wrap this up now as I’m going out for dinner and I need to get the maître d’ a box of chocolates in case he acknowledges me.
2. H2Oh no you di-in’t!
As far as groundbreaking moments in restaurant business history go, discovering they could make a profit on water comes in a close second to the invention of the “cakeage” fee. These days the question “would you like some water for the table?” has been almost entirely replaced by “still, sparkling or tap?” And there is a palpable emphasis on that word “tap” as if to say “would you like some heavenly filtered aqua minerale from the Swiss alps, or that disgusting free shit we bathe in?” Here’s the thing, bottled water is probably the most accessible food and beverage product on the market. Only a total moron wouldn’t know that they could purchase bottled water at a restaurant should they feel like it. Rest assure, if we want it, we will ask. Furthermore, this is not Kosovo or Uzbekistan. We are incredibly lucky in Sydney to be able to have beautiful tap water. We should feel privileged to order it, not feel ashamed to say “just tap water will be fine thanks,” with the same tinge of embarrassment you feel when ordering the cheapest wine on the menu. Bottled water is expensive. If I had a dollar for every time I said “just tap water thanks” I would almost have enough money to pay for a bottle of “still”. So stop asking the question, Sydney restaurants. Give me the stuff from the tap judgment-free and let me save my $10 for an extra serving of fries.
"They ordered tap water guys, go ahead and overcook that meat because they clearly don’t have enough money for a tip!"
3. Telling you what you ordered
In the diverse realm of annoying restaurant habits, this one really gets my goat curry. You know the drill.
You: “..and for dessert I’ll have the soft chocolate, hazelnut and almond praline, lavender and honey cream, blackberry sorbet caramel and shiso vinegar jellies, green tea, licorice, chocolate twigs and crystallised fennel fronds.”
(A short time later)
Waiter: “Here we have the soft chocolate, hazelnut and almond praline with lavender and honey cream. It’s served with a blackberry sorbet caramel and shiso vinegar jellies, and there’s also green tea, licorice, and chocolate twigs. And right there on top are some lovely crystallised fennel fronds.”
You, in your mind: “I KNOW. I LITERALLY JUST SAID ALL OF THOSE WORDS TO YOU AFTER READING THEM ON THE MENU.”
You, in reality: (Nodding for five minutes while you wait for them to finish explaining) “Lovely thank you so much.”
I get why this happens. There is a certain elegant flair associated with an articulate description of the dish as it appears before you, and it is certainly better than the waiter slamming it down and saying “here’s your dessert, ya loser.” But it’s not necessary to recap an often lengthy dish description given you have already read it on the menu, and said it yourself when ordering. Unless the service is so bad the diners have forgotten what they ordered by the time their meal arrives, you can probably just keep it to “and here we have the soft chocolate, enjoy.”
4. Taking your plate away before you’re finished
A few weeks ago I was at a popular inner-city restaurant with a friend. In addition to our mains we ordered a side of roast pumpkin with ricotta and toasted hazelnuts. The dish came with eight small pieces of pumpkin. My friend ate two pieces and I ate three. Now, if you’re any good at kindergarten-level mathematics, you’ll have figured out that this leaves three pieces of pumpkin. Gold star for you. In our minds, we were just getting started. But the waiter saw those three pieces of delicious caramelised pumpkin and thought “they’re finished here, those five pumpkin pieces would have been very filling. I’ll just take that plate away.” Woah there buddy, three out of eight pieces of pumpkin is 3/8 or 37.5% of the dish! (Sorry all, shifting to fifth grade mathematics now). I think you’ll agree that is a significant fraction of the dish. This has also happened to me with 22% of a rocket and parmesan salad and 34.3% of a lovely mushroom risotto. Here’s a tip, restaurants: we know you want to get us out as quickly as possible but next time either wait until 100% of the food is consumed, or kindly ask if the diner has finished before taking the plates away.
The universal sign for “I’m finished, you can take my plate away.” Usually it’s about the placement of the knife and fork, but in Sydney you can tell someone’s finished because there’s not even a single crumb left. Those crumbs average out to $2.95 each, or $3.05 if there is a glimpse of the harbour, so you don’t want to leave any of those suckers behind.
5. The two session approach
Now, you’ll notice I haven’t put “Not taking reservations” on this list. While it’s incredibly annoying, this one is on us, diners. We screwed things up when we didn’t show for that booking of 11 people we made at that Italian place in 2007. As a result of our inconsiderate behaviour, most restaurants no longer take reservations. The ones that do, however, take out their frustrations on their customers in a different way: by offering just two dinner “sessions”. This means that you can eat your dinner either just after lunch, or right before you go to sleep.
“Oh hi there, I’d like to book a table for dinner please.”
“Sure, would you like 6pm or 9pm?”
“Umm neither. Can’t I book a table for 7:30pm. You know, dinner time?”
“No we only do 6 or 9.”
“But that leaves me with the awkward problem of either running like a maniac after work to get there on time or going all the way home, trying to resist food from the fridge as I will be starving, almost falling asleep on the couch, and then having to venture all the way back out.”
“That’s really not my problem.”
(Sigh) "Ok, I’ll go with 9 thanks. But can I wear my pajamas?”
“No we have a strict dress code.”
“Ok, thank you so much for your help and sorry to put you out.”
“That’s fine just don’t do it again.”