Tuesday, 26 February 2008

Top 10 Things I Hate About London Restaurants

I don't often do these things, but I have a nasty cold and am feeling generally hostile towards the world, so I hereby present my top ten London restaurant annoyances. Feel free to add any of your own in the comments section.

10. Being made to feel guilty for ordering tap water.

It doesn't make me some sort of shameful cheapskate if I object to paying £3 a litre for a substance that falls out of the sky for free. Please, offer me tap water without me having to ask for it, and better still (well done Tayyabs) just leave a jug of it on the table so I can help myself. And speaking of helping myself:

9. Italian restaurants and black pepper.

Perhaps once, back in the mists of time, it was considered classy to have the waiter take 20 minutes grinding black pepper over every dish on a table of 15, but these days it's just irritating. Is there something more inherently precious about pepper that we aren't deemed worthy enough to use it ourselves on our own meals, and yet are given free reign with the salt? Leave the damn pepperpot on the table, Luigi, and leave me alone, thanks very much.

8. Italian restaurants

The fact that I've never had a decent Italian meal in London is only part of the reason for my aversion. What I really object to is being charged £12 for a plate of bought-in pasta and tinned tomatoes which must have cost no more than 20p in ingredients. Steaks in Italian restaurants in London are always rubbish too. And no, I've not been to Locanda Locatelli or the River Cafe but I have seen their menus, and all I can say is if I'm paying £30 for a single plate of pork loin, I hope they have good enough binoculars to see me coming.

7. 15% service charges

Listen, it's a simple rule. The accepted service charge in this country is 12.5%. Anywhere charging 15% might as well just have "RIPOFF" written in leftover beetroot purée on the front step. I don't care if you perform the Heimlich manoeuvre on me after a piece of guinea fowl gets lodged in my gullet, or if you're trained in midwifery because the vindaloo occasionally induces labour. It's 12.5% and I'll only give you any more if I think you deserve it.

6. Cover charges

The Wolseley is a perfectly good restaurant serving perfectly good food. The reason I will never go (at least not if I'm paying) is because they charge £2 for the privilege of walking through their front door and sitting down. I have no idea where this disgraceful practice started (perhaps they had a large number of diners scoffing free bread and tapwater then getting up and leaving, though I very much doubt it) but it has to stop now.

5. Posh Indian restaurants

There's been a rather worrying trend in London over the last few years to attempt to "posh up" what I will loosely call "Indian" dining, perhaps down to the mistaken belief that people in Mayfair won't eat tandoori chicken unless it comes served under a silver dome and with a winelist like a telephone directory. All of them - Benares, Tamarind, Amaya, the lot - are rubbish. I'm sorry to start sounding like their PR agent, but if Tayyabs can serve the best seekh kebabs in London at 80p a pop, there's no excuse for anyone else charging any more.

4. Dishonest menu descriptions

How often have you ordered a dish billed as something like 'Chicken breast with truffle and cauliflower purée', only for said dish to arrive with a huge lump of chicken, a truckload of green salad and a miniscule pinprick of white sauce you can only assume is the purée because it's almost too small to see, let alone taste? This is even more common in mid-range restaurants who attempt to push the boat out with premium ingredients but can't make the numbers work without making one truffle go between 500 plates of food.

3. Supplements on courses

Hibiscus is a fine-dining restaurant, and by all accounts a very good one at that, so they are quite within their rights to charge £60 for a three-course meal. But when is a prix-fixe menu not a prix-fixe menu? When a full 30% of the dishes carry a hefty supplement, that's when - langoustine ravioli is £7.50 extra, and the signature sausage roll a full £12.50 more. Fresh white truffles or Oscieta caviar I can understand paying extra for, but not just a bit of pork. Not only is this practice downright misleading, but if you're going to take into account the relative cost of each dish's ingredients and preparation, then just be honest and call it À la carte. And don't even get me started on cheese course pricing....

2. Restaurants that cram them in

I know that every good restaurateur needs to keep his or her eye on the bottom line, but some of the tables I've had to put up with just take the Michael. The places with the bench seating are the worst, Wagamamas seemingly of the opinion that the more you hear of your fellow diner's loft extension or cataract operation the better. But higher-end places aren't exempt from cynical seating either - here's another tip for restaurants: if the waiter has to move the entire table every time punters need a toilet break, you may want to rethink your seating plan.

1. Other people

Whether it's expense account suits in The Square leaving plate after plate of the most exquisite food in London untouched, or braying hordes of Chelsea Sloanes barracking relentlessly polite Polish waiting staff in a Kings Road brasserie, there's nothing more potentially damaging to your faith in the human race than eating out in London. If you think that sounds overly misanthropic, next time you go out for a meal take a moment to observe the other diners in the room. I guarantee that the vast majority will be either loud, obnoxious, ignorant, disrespectful or a violent cocktail of all of the above. If I was Michael Winner I'd just book a private room whenever I went for dinner out, but then again, if I was Michael Winner, I'd be trapped in a room with exactly the kind of person I'd be paying to avoid.

(Photo courtesy of Cinema Retro)


Anonymous said...

#6 annoys me the most. The place where it always jolts for me is J Sheekey. You go in, spend a fortune and happily pay the tip. Then they kick you in the balls with a poxy service charge. It's so small as to be irrelevant - and easily lost elsewhere - but just large enough to really piss me off.

#7 hard to agree with you. I generally feel we don't tip enough in the UK.

#8 Go to Locanda Locatelli or Giusto on Blandford Street for great pizza.

Sarah said...

Theo Randall is a good Italian and the prices are not too scary!

Chris Pople said...

Yes you're probably right that we don't tip enough in the UK, but that doesn't excuse some restaurants cynically trying to change the culture on their own.

Also, Locanda Locatelli and Theo Randall - neither exactly budget choices are they? Where are the good mid-range Italians in London? You've both just proved my point I think

Anonymous said...

I think we tip too much. What are we tipping for exactly, someone taking my order for food then bringing it to the table, perhaps the odd water/wine top-up? They get paid a wage just like you or me. It may not be high in many instances but no one is holding a gun to their head.
Why should we as diners subsidise an industry intent on paying low wages?
You're in a store and you try on a pair of shoes that are the wrong size.The store staff go away and fetch the correct size. When you reach the till to pay they've added 12.5% of the shoe price to the price. Do you pay as you've recieved good service? Do you f*@k................

Annemarie said...

Ah, I never feel like a cheapskate for ordering tap water. I proudly wear that heart on my sleeve, and preempt any questions of the matter by ordering it first off.
Great list, Chris.

Anonymous said...

Your post has been featured on Londonist as part of this month's London Food Blog Round-Up:


Guernican said...

If you're feeling guilty about ordering tap water in a London restaurant, maybe you should grow a pair and realise that the opporobrium of a snooty waiter - how can I put this? - isn't going to kill you.

Annemarie said...

Have been thinking about your Italian restaurant conundrum, and have a possible solution for you. There was a great, cheap Italian caff in Tufnell Park - killer bruschetta, best spag bol outside of Italy - where you BYOB and dined for around £10 a head. Haven't been in 3 years so I'm nervous about recommending it, but it did get a few people's attention.

Chris Pople said...

Guernican: Exactly my point.

Annemarie: Very interesting. I've done a bit of Googling and it sounds like just the kind of place that might cure my Italian-Restaurant-In-London-Phobia. I will let you know the outcome.

Anonymous said...

I never feel like a cheapskate for ordering tap water, but some waitstaff try their damndest to make me feel like one! At a recent dinner at Levant:
Waiter - can I start you off with some still or sparkling water?
Me - No, just tap water please
Waiter - Still or sparkling?
This went on 6 times. Then when my friends arrived he had the cheek to try to con them into some £5 a bottle stuff... ARGH.

But on the note of overpriced Indian restaurants, if you get out of work early enough to go to Cinnamon Club on the top table deal, it really really is worth it.

Douglas Blyde said...


Anonymous said...

In relation to your top ten peeves post and your post about dining in America...I am a Brit who lives in the States and my top vote in terms of dining out here is that no matter where you go to eat you are given a glass of tap water without even asking; it's a very simple and gracious act.
Really like your blog - Thanks.


Frequent Traveler said...

Very good points that you made here, and true for my experience when in London in April.

#1 = The somelier at Lagavroche postively sneered at me for only wanting water.

#3 = what about Zafferano ?

#4 = worries me about both Thackeray's near Kent, and L'Oranger on 5 St. James Street - any feedback on these two from your personal experience ?

#6 = that is huge nerve of them. See also #3.

#2 = is a disgrace anywhere, and most especially in an expensive restaurant.
It would be nice to think that pleasing the customer factors into the management's planning, but that doesn't seem to be the case all the time, does it ?

#1 = noise and bad accoustics drive me crazy. If I can't hear the other people I'm having a meal with speak, I won't go back.
Gordon Ramsay on Hospital Road was a pleasure, it was so quiet even when full.

Oliver Thring said...

One of the best restaurant blog posts ever! Thank you for a delightfully acerbic read.

Anonymous said...

For once I agree with the man. Especially about Italian restaurants in London. In fact, I feel that Italian food is vastly overrated in general but certainly no Italian plate of pasta scotta in tomato muck in a London traitoria :) is worthy of calling itself Italian in the first place. The more upmarket Italian restaurants are just pretentious versions of their plastic fruit lights and fake Venetian statue predecessors.
Give me a plate of salmon at the Dorchester any day of the week.

SimonJ said...

I can stand it when restaurants list a meal with a price and then omit the fact that it doesn't have any of the normal accompanying meal factors like potatoes or greenery to its scenery and then lists these as a side.

They are not side orders they are normal accompaniments to a meal and therefore the restaurant should be sued under the misrepresentation of sales acts for misinforming their customers as to their meal constituent parts. Rahhhhhh