Ashley Davies: It’s harder to complain about bad service than bad food

Experience as a waitress reveals the tensions involved in the dining arena. Picture: Getty
Experience as a waitress reveals the tensions involved in the dining arena. Picture: Getty
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If you’re paying top dollar for a special meal, it’s horrible being ignored, writes Ashley Davies

Near the top of the list of things I should be embarrassed about but emphatically am not is something I did while waitressing as a student. I was looking after a table of about six people in the upper-mid-range brasserie where I worked.

Regardless of service or food quality, few people complain there and then. Picture: Getty

Regardless of service or food quality, few people complain there and then. Picture: Getty

They stayed for four or five hours, made a lot of noise – enough to make several of our regulars uncomfortable – and were fairly demanding with their off-menu requests and mind-changing. But I took care of them and made them feel valued because I cared about the place’s reputation, because that was my job, because they were paying, and because tips were a vital part of my income. (Also because a pathetic, needy part of me wanted them to like me even though I didn’t like them but that’s for a different therapy session.)

Their bill came to about £250 and a reasonable 10 per cent of that would have made a huge difference to my life. When they left, I went to clear their table and collect my reward, and was disgusted to find a small pile of coins. Not even those nice little fat ones – thin, brown coins. No more than 30p, I reckon, but I wasn’t prepared to waste my time counting. I collected the money in my sweaty palm, calmly walked outside, and threw that stinking pittance as far as I could into the park across the road. It felt so good. I may even have let out a little shot-puttery grunt on release.

As I turned around to return to work I realised the tightwads were standing right behind me, witnessing my impotent exercise in hollow revenge. I looked their leader squarely, defiantly, in the face, said nothing and went back to work. I hope they understood what they did wrong. Doubt it, though.

Despite the occasional miscarriage of tipping justice and the odd bout of sexual harassment or rudeness from customers or occasional volcanic anger from the kitchen, I loved waitressing. Customers were usually there because they wanted a treat of some sort, and it was a pleasure to be part of that, to make them feel a bit special. It made us happy to make them feel happy and if diners didn’t get what they’d hoped for, we’d all make a serious effort to fix that because we took pride in what we were doing.

I learnt a lot about what to expect from kitchens of various sizes and what to expect from waiting staff. It can be a really demanding job when you’re overstretched, and even though it’s been more than 20 years since I last did it, I still have anxiety dreams about working alone in a busy section in which dozens of impatient customers are waiting to give me their orders.

This is my long-winded way of saying I am a sympathetic towards people who work in restaurants, and I would never, ever take anything they do for granted. I’m always kind and patient with waiting staff. Always. Because I’ve done it, I really appreciate it when it’s done well. And I really notice when it’s done badly – as it was last Sunday when I took my husband to a well-known restaurant in Edinburgh (the kind about which people which go “oooh, lucky” when you say you’re going) for his birthday.

I know the complaints I’m about to raise are unlikely to attract the attention of Amnesty, but when you’re paying quite a lot of money you sort of hope you’ll be made to feel valued, particularly as most mid-range restaurants now really have their acts together on the service front – thanks in part to sites like Tripadvisor. Go to an eaterie where staff feel like stakeholders in the business and it’s clear they’re playing the long game and want you to come back and tell your pals – real and virtual – what a great time you had.

But last weekend’s experience made me realise that while we Brits have made a lot of progress in learning how to express dissatisfaction with the food we’ve been served, we still have a lot to learn about how to complain about bad service. I certainly do.

Even writing this, I can’t quite express my gripes without worrying about sounding like one of those spoilt minor royals who you only hear about during Wimbledon or when their dog has killed a gamekeeper’s child. But I wanted it to be a special meal and we were paying about £2 a mouthful.

Perhaps in an attempt to cram in as many customers as possible during the Festival, the restaurant was taking bookings for various slots throughout the day, and we arrived about an hour before one group of waiting staff were about to clock off. Maybe they were knackered; they were certainly very busy. Maybe there was some arrangement which meant they wouldn’t see any tip money from us if they left before us, but we felt properly neglected.

But that doesn’t excuse the fact that we were largely left to our own devices, had to practically beg for bread and for the various types on offer to be described, had to ask for our empties to be taken away, pour our own wine (I know, I know, but you know – this place is expensive).

In most good restaurants, you feel like a billionaire at an auction – a slight eyebrow movement is usually enough to attract the attention of someone on the staff. But on Sunday we had to lean into their paths to make them stop because smiling desperately and waving just weren’t cutting it. At one point my husband spotted a small fire on a table and told the waiter, who responded with: “JESUS” and ran off to quell the flames. Wouldn’t most people have come back and said a friendly thank you at that point?

I had a discreet chat with some of the other diners and they all felt the same. When a more experienced staff member started his shift and asked if we were enjoying ourselves I realised how difficult it is to raise the issue of poor service. It’s a bit like telling your teacher the other kids aren’t being friendly enough. But if I was a restaurateur I would rather get feedback then and there than read about it online. Our there-and-then feedback, however, made little difference. And yet we still left a tip because it would’ve been embarrassing not to. Ridiculous.