Thursday, 6 January 2011
Franklins, East Dulwich
There's a fantastic article by Russell Norman, on his blog and reprinted from the latest Fire and Knives, about the art of complaining in restaurants. It's told mainly from the restaurant's point of view, as you might expect from the man behind Polpo and Polpetto, and makes many salient points about the best ways to deal with comments from customers that, as any front of house will tell you, can range from reasonable to bizarre to downright wrong. The overall message seems to be no matter what the issue, apologise, smile and The Customer Is Always Right, which of course makes perfect sense, but it's his message to us, the paying customer, that really caught my attention -
So, should we complain in restaurants when something goes wrong? Absolutely, yes! But we should complain as soon as we can to give the restaurant time to fix the problem, not on the way out when they can do nothing. Believe it or not, I like it when customers complain because it opens a dialogue whereby I can show off and impress by how good the response and the ‘fix’ is. You should also complain about small things as well as big things – it helps the restaurant improve and, ultimately, means that return visits should get better and better as the restaurant sharpens its practices. We want to know if the knife is dirty. We want to know if the Virgin Mary isn’t spicy enough. We want to know if the table wobbles.
Which, again, from the restaurant's point of view, I can completely understand. Of course they want to know if there's something they're not doing right, and presumably if all their customers complained about everything they could think of all the time, it would be like having a vast, extremely grumpy but constantly updating market research programme specifically tailored to making your restaurant as good as it can possibly be. It would make for a very odd atmosphere for dinner, perhaps, but at least the message would get through.
The thing is, though, I hardly ever complain. If I get the wrong dish, or my beef is overcooked to oblivion, or there's a shard of broken glass in my ice cream, then of course I'll say something. But usually nothing short of a complete disaster will prompt any kind of intervention on my part, for various reasons. Firstly (and mainly, I suppose) it's that good old English attitude of not wanting to make a fuss, and to gamely plough on with the meal, hoping that if you don't mention it it will go away or fix itself. Stupid, I know, but that's the English for you - and despite the impression you may get from reading the posts on this blog, I really do always want to enjoy myself when I go out for a meal, not sit there moaning. Also, now more people know I'm a food blogger and - most importantly - know what a food blog is, I'm very conscious of coming across as rude or arrogant (or at least even more rude or arrogant than normal), showboating my superior taste and knowledge of eating out and boring everyone else senseless. And thirdly, I'm not convinced that there is always something a restaurant can do to improve things. Take, for example, this meal at Barbecoa - the quality of the produce was poor, the food unadventurous and the whole thing rather overpriced, but nothing was inedible and I wonder what our charming waitress would have said if I'd pointed that out - "I'm very sorry sir, I'll go out and find a new meat supplier this very second. And in future we won't charge any extra for the bread."
I promise there is a point to all this, so please bear with me. Franklins, a cosy restaurant in East Dulwich I sheltered in with a couple of blogger friends during the great snowstorm of 2010, served us a decent if uneven meal and the service veered between manically attentive and decisively ropey. So far so East Dulwich. But it was the things that annoyed us that we didn't mention to the staff compared to the things we didn't like that we did mention that hopefully illustrates some of the points I've rather ineptly been trying to make above. Consider, for example, these oysters:
Tiny, carelessly opened and less "loosened" than "hacked to bits", these hardly inexpensive natives (£2.40 a pop) nevertheless, despite the sad lack of briny liquor and poor presentation, tasted pretty good - crunchy and fresh. And while they were disappointing in many ways, they weren't quite disastrous enough to warrant a complaint, so in the interests of good company and a pleasant lunch, nothing was said.
Starter of confit rabbit with green beans certainly didn't warrant a complaint, because it was bloody good. The veg was crunchy fresh, the salty rabbit seasoned the dish very well, and I particularly liked the inclusion of a couple of bits of offal for interest and texture.
Ditto a main of venison haunch, which showcased tender and moist game dressed in a deeply addictive rich sauce, on an oozing mountain of savoy cabbage, shallots and (mmm) crispy bacon bits. When the guys at Franklins get it right, they really get it right, but when they get it wrong, they serve:
Unseasoned, unbuttered, undercooked and pretty much inedible sprout tops, it was like eating damp rubber, only not quite so enjoyable. This was not just a matter of opinion, this was objectively wrong, and so, emboldened by my blogger friends we mentioned it to the waitress, who apologised and took it off the bill. A good result, then, and a good example of a successful complaint.
And then, just as they were winning us back with their management of the whole sprout tops issue, the Franklins staff spoil it again by standing around chatting amongst themselves behind the bar and completely ignoring our requests to pay. In the end, one of us had to march up to the bar, credit card in hand, and physically interrupt the happily distracted group in order to get their attention. And how do you complain about that? "We think watching you socialise while we're trying to pay for our meal is incredibly irritating." I can't think of a way of making that complaint sound anything other than deliberately unpleasant, and of course nothing was said. Mind you, you'd hope they'd get the hint something was wrong when confronted by a stressed customer brandishing their VISA.
I suppose, in the end, a happy balance needs to be struck between the needs of a restaurant manager for accurate and constructive feedback on his or her restaurant, and the needs of the punter to have a nice, quiet, peaceable evening. I completely understand the frustrations of any business owner, not just restaurateurs, who serve their product to what for all they know are happy clients only to read a furious rant on a consumer review site (or, er, a food blog) the next day, but they must understand it's human nature, well, English nature at least, to not make a fuss about every little thing and run the risk of annoying your date. I will never be completely comfortable with complaining in restaurants, and to be honest don't like eating out with people who are; ultimately, I won't be made to feel guilty for not feeding back a comprehensive list of action points after a meal - it's my choice, I'm a paying customer, not a business consultant. If you think that's misguided, or just plain cowardly, then perhaps you're right, but I don't think I'm in the minority. Feel free to prove me wrong though, and I'd be very interested to see what everyone else out there thinks, so please leave comments, rebuttals and, yes, even complaints, below.