Tuesday, 13 May 2014

10 things I hate about restaurants

I've always loved going to restaurants. I was lucky, my parents took me out to eat from a young age. Proper restaurants, not fast food, there were no McDonalds when I was a kid. Every summer hols we'd drive through France, sometimes to Italy or Spain. My parents valued and spent money on travel and food, they still do. So we'd have meals in restaurants en route. My siblings and I learnt 'restaurant behaviour'. We had wine with our meals, watered down. We knew how to order. We knew whether to cut bread or tear it. We learnt about unsalted butter, horse meat steaks, sparkling or still water, about courses. We memorised the ice cream menu, lemon sorbet in a lemon, 'chocolat liegeois'  'dame blanche', off by heart. We even got bored with the formulaic menus.
The first thing we would do on returning, sometimes not even stopping to drop the suitcases back home, was go to the Agra, round the back of the Post Office Tower, to eat tandoori.
As an adult, I still love restaurants. The magic of a restaurant occasion is why I started a supper club, I liked it so much I made a 'pretend' restaurant in my house.
But there are few restaurants that I visit regularly. I don't go as much as other bloggers, unless there is something specific that interests me. Often I think, I could make this better at home. In fact I can't think of anything worse than only eating in restaurants. When I've been on holiday where I have no access to a kitchen, I get desperate to cook. Restaurant food alone is not sufficiently nutritious. It is over-handled by chefs, portion control is often stringent to the point of absurdity, and you'd be surprised by how much they buy in: bread, icecream, chocolate decorations for desserts, fresh pasta, puff pastry, pickles and sauces. My most asked question in restaurants? Did you make it? Is this home-made?


1) Noise
Loud music in restaurants, I always feel, is there for the benefit of the staff not guests. The music is to energize the staff, to make them feel their workplace is 'fun'. But what about the guests? If I'm going to a restaurant with someone else I probably want to talk to them. Only very low background music is acceptable in certain types of restaurant. We aren't going to a disco.
In The Spaghetti Tree, a book about the 'trattoria' revolution in 60s London dining, the famed restaurant designer Enzo Apicella declares: 'In Italy it's frowned upon... restaurants play pop or jazz because, it is supposed, it makes people eat faster, so they leave the place faster and can be replaced by new customers.'
And what about people with hearing problems? My mum is very deaf and she selects a restaurant based on acoustics, not food. For example, I enjoyed the food at MEATliquor, but the music was deafening, auditory water-boarding. I feel sure that it interferes with your taste buds. I like to concentrate on my food.

2) Topping up wine glasses
This is upselling the wine. They are doing this because making you buy another bottle of wine is an easy buck for a restaurant. I loathe it. I'm an adult and can top up my own wine thank you very much. It irritates me, this force-feeding of booze. Most people like to keep an eye on how much they are drinking. Three drinks is my maximum.

3) Small portions
Two examples: I went to Made in Italy in Kings Road recently. I had a spaghetti vongole, priced as a main course not as a starter (primi piatti), which couldn't have had more than 60g of cooked pasta. That's not a main meal.
At Pollen St Social, I ordered the much recommended burrata salad, I was shocked how stingy they were with the cheese, it was the size of a walnut rather than an apple.
Many of the fashionable restaurants give you smears and droplets rather than sauces. This makes it hard to eat, difficult to lift off the plate.

4) No bread
I judge a restaurant by its bread. If a restaurant has good bread, you can more or less forgive them any other failing. If you have to buy it, buy the very very best.

5) No vegetarian options
Even though I occasionally eat fish, I will often order the vegetarian menu, to see what they can drum up, without the easy option of meat and fish. I've rarely been impressed. So often it is yesterdays left-overs, wrapped in puff pastry. Or a risotto. Or beetroot. Yawn. Carnivores can't cook for vegetarians; the flavours are underpowered. My friend Les Wong often won't go with me to a restaurant 'you can only eat the sides'. That is a typically carnivore-centric attitude. I'm happy with sides.

6) No reservation
This is Russell Norman's technique and it has caught on. I remember waiting an hour and a half to be seated at the old Polpetto and then getting a bad table. Russell said to me "I don't want people from the provinces to be reserving tables. I want young workers from Soho. So I won't allow reservations". I then had to put up with snotty staff and loud music. It's a shame because the food was so good.
No reservations makes money for the restaurateur: to keep people hanging around in the bar spending money on drink while they wait.
I will not stand outside in a queue for the privilege of spending my money in your restaurant if you won't allow reservations.

7) Bar stools
I like sitting down. Properly. With my feet touching the ground.
Again, this is a profit boosting strategy: if you aren't comfortable, you will eat up more quickly and they can turn tables (or bar places) faster. McDonalds started it in the 70s with an extreme version: these were not just bar stools, but were tilted so that you couldn't sit in them, you just propped a section of your bum onto the ledge.
If you are going to have bar stools, perhaps because of a genuine lack of space, at least have a rung where small people (like women) can put their feet and handbag hooks attached to the bar so that it isn't stolen and is easy to reach.

8) Snotty staff and tips
One of the reasons I love restaurant critic Marina O'Loughlin's columns, apart from the honest and witty writing, is that she is anonymous. Hence she often gets the crappy seat that is so often assigned to the unimportant guest. Revealing. Here is a guide to the best tables at top London restaurants by critic Richard Vines.
Tips. I usually pay 10%. I didn't like it when they automatically added service then left a gap for you to pay more service but that seems to have fallen into disuse now. In the States it is a ridiculous competition as to who can pay bigger tips but it's generally about 20%. In France service is included.

9) Free services - cover charge, tap water, wifi
Cover charges tend to be a European thing, unpopular in the UK. Rowley Leigh used to have a cover charge, for bread, radishes and butter at Le Cafe Anglais but discontinued it after complaints. Is it to make sure that customers spend a certain minimum? Is it to pay for laundry, which can be 10% of a restaurants profits? (Although tablecloths seem to be a thing of the past, except in posh places).
In London today, most restaurants will give you tap water. Much of Europe, however, they have the same attitude as British restaurants did before 2010. It's now law that you can request a glass of tap water.
Wifi: every bar and restaurant should have free wifi. It's not an issue for me in the UK as I have a UK phone, but abroad, it's a nightmare. Even hotels still act like giving you wifi is a privilege you should pay for. Tourists need wifi. I'll often go eat in a restaurant purely because it has free internet, like the Wimpy bar in Maun, Botwana.

10) Dreary desserts
So many dessert menus are uninspiring. I think pudding is when the diner reverts to tradition, an urge that must be satisfied, even if one is quite happy to be modernist and experimental with the rest of the menu.  I think any pudding list should have:
  • a chocolatey thing
  • a fruity dish
  • an icecream
  • something meringue
  • something with salted caramel
  • something citrussy 
  • something cakey
I think it was Gordon Ramsay that said pudding was the most important course in a restaurant meal, it's the last impression one has of a restaurant.
But one pet hate: tiramisu. Who likes tiramisu? It's like the Bounty Bar of desserts, only weirdos like them.

So what gets your goat about restaurants? What rules do you have? 

54 comments:

  1. I like Bounties (dark ones when you can find them....) and Tiramisu. :)

    And trifle.

    What's your take on trifle?

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    1. Gorra admit Lynne, that I don't really like trifle. But I know there are trifle fanatics, to whome trifle is not a trifling matter. I guess I like my own trifle, which doesn't have jelly, is very alcoholic and sometimes has wild strawberries from my garden.

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    2. I somehow knew you wouldn't be a trifling person! and like you, I prefer my own rather than other peoples. The balance is too important to leave to other people..

      I have wild strawberries in my garden too. If I am lucky I get about 4 at a time, so they are eaten quickly whilst putting the washing out.

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    3. You are a trifle psychic! I had loads of wild strawberries, bucket loads, but since I had the garden 'done', there are less. I guess they will grow back.
      Love that image of you having just enough to snack on while putting the washing out.

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  2. No reservation rule seams to be popular in London lately. No matter how popular the place is, I'm not gonna be waiting in a queue. There's plenty of other restaurants in London.

    I'm a weirdo btw. I love tiramisu. Caffe Vergnano 1882 on the southbank does a great one.

    PS. I've nominated your blog in my Liebster Blog Awards post x

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    1. Zackly.
      Maybe I've never had a good tiramisu. Caffe Vegnano: I once attended a talk by the guys that started it, I don't think I've ever seen such obsession with coffee. So maybe their tiramisu is good.
      Thanks for the nomination, how lovely. It is also time for the ofm blog awards: http://www.theguardian.com/observer-food-monthly-awards

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  3. Nice list, don't mind so much the wine top up thing, but that might say more about me and my drinking habit.

    Top, top hate by far is when a dish is no longer available. Worst than that, when a dish is not available and you are not told until you have poured over the menu for 20-odd minutes, unable to choose (due to it being too good) or the classic re-reading of a menu, looking for something you might like.

    Tell me as I sit down and you hand over the menu - fair enough, although I do think 'why can't you manage portions better' (though I have never been a restaurateur so maybe this is more difficult that we think).

    Tell me as you take my order, shame on you.

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    1. This is especially annoying when it's the only dish you want, which is sometimes the case if you have a restricted diet, such as vegetarian or gluten free. (But fusspots drive restaurateurs mad!)

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  4. 60g of pasta is the general size of a portion isn't it? (Not that ever abide by that though,hence the size of my arse....)

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    1. I would serve 100 to 150g cooked

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    2. we must be pigs then as I serve 100-150 uncooked for a main meal. But I don't have a lot of sauce, the pasta is the main part. Does that affect the quantity?

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    3. The trouble with Italian restaurants is that they still treat pasta like a prime and don't give a proper portion, even when it is a main dish. I think they still associate pasta with poor food.
      But yes, you need at least 100g or it doesn't touch the sides.

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  5. Bad service - I feel sorry for staff that just haven't been schooled properly in how to wait tables or given a basic run through of the menu and what it entails before serving...bad service can really ruin a perfectly lovely meal!

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    1. Agreed. And good service can lift a terrible one!

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  6. If I get bread and tap water at the beginning of a meal, I will probably return to that restaurant.
    One of the things I hate most when I go to restaurants is the constant attention to my male companion. Directing all questions to him and giving him the wine to taste, the credit card machine, etc. I always point it out now, like the angry feminist I am.

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  7. The thing that deives me batshit is when you ask for the bill and tey keep you hanging on for ages and then take even longer to bring your change or the credit card machine. The topping up irritates me too

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    1. Oh yes, that's another weird one they do.

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  8. For a teddy bear like me I have a surprising number of peeves... Here's the first few that spring to mind - I am sure more will follow:
    Poorly trained staff who start to clear the table whilst some diners are still eating.
    Poorly trained staff who are simply not familiar enough with the menu.
    The wrong attire: waiters/resses in open-toed shoes/vest tops are just wrong.
    Charging you for a second cup of coffee at the end.
    Obsequiousness.
    Lemon in glasses of water (without asking).

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    1. I hate it when you've out your knife and fork down for a minute and they whisk your not quite finished plate away. I've also had that when I've gone to the loo.

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  9. I read the other day that Burt Lancaster judged a restaurant on its bread and coffee so you are in fine company! I really don't like it when restaurants have bread that may or may not have been fantastic some hours before but has been allowed to dry out and still gets served. A great restaurant is one that serves fresh bread right up until the last order.

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  10. Ghoul of London21 April 2014 at 20:12

    Very much agree, especially points 1-5. The topping up wine thing is so irritating, and it feels awkward to tell them to stop, sometimes. Loud / inappropriate music, small portions, no veggie options, lack of (or poor quality) bread - all crimes. Aside from bread being a good gauge of quality, I think also olives, house wine, and side salads. If the salad is naff, under-dressed, with lame, fridge-cold ingredients, it tells me they don't expect any real foodies in their eatery. Even a chain, like Strada, does wonderful side-salads. Some of the stuff I've had from apparently good local places has been simply pointless. One more thing - cold plates! I'd never serve hot food on cold plates at home, just for myself, let alone expect it in a restaurant!

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    1. I just put my hand over my glass but sometimes they persist
      House wine being halfway decent is a definite indicator of a good restaurant

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  11. Spot on, all of it! And #7 seems to be getting progressively worse. Why are so many restaurants popping up in London without proper tables? I get even more stressed out over benches, where they squeeze you between other groups of people. Not only physically uncomfortable, but I don't feel I can have a proper conversation with a random person sitting directly next to the person I am trying to talk to. It ends up being such a dull experience. Like the dining hall at school.

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    1. Comfortable chairs is really an issue if you are short. Often chairs cut into the back of my legs. I don't mind benches so much (I do use a couple for my supper club but then the experience of a supper club is all about communal dining).

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  12. I mostly eat at cafes rather than restaurants and hate it when they say you can't ask for any changes to dishes - it is hard enough to find a decent vegetarian meal - a little creativity helps. I also went to a place recently where I asked about vegetarian options and was told about ones that were not noted on menu which made me glad I had asked but frustrated it wasn't written as an option.

    Hate tiramasu and hate loud noise and wonder why interesting vegetarian meals aren't more highly respected in the restaurant world - there is so much innovation in veg food

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    1. I think/hope this is changing. We've gone through a few years of meaty 'dude food' and there is much defensiveness/snobbery about vegetarian or vegan food. Veggie food should be more respected, it's always harder work to create.

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  13. There is so much truth to this post that I'm beginning to wonder why we go out to dinner at all!
    Here are some of my thoughts:
    I think Gordon Ramsay has it spot on when he says that dessert should be one of the best parts of the meal. When I'm planning a menu for a dinner with friends, I often start with the dessert and work backwards. I find that people's abiding memory is of the dessert and if that's fantastic, everyone will be a whole lot more forgiving of what went beforehand - although hopefully that will have been fantastic too!
    When I go out to restaurants though, I often don't bother with dessert. Even really good places can let themselves down when it comes to the sweet course. It's as though it's an after thought and not as worthy of attention as the rest of the menu.
    Ditto with vegetarian options. Perhaps some chefs think that vegetarians don't really care about the taste of food as long as the ethics of it are right. Veggie lasagne, beetroot with goat's curd... If there are trends in restaurant cooking, there definitely are when it comes to cooking for vegetarians and it can get very boring very quickly.
    That said and although I agree with you on all of the above, I still love going out to eat in restaurants!

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    1. I do find that I tend to go to ethnic restaurants, stuff that I'm less likely or not as capable of, cooking at home: really good Indian or Thai for example. Also pizza (although I can do great pizza in my Aga, it is quite a bit of pfaffing around).
      Pudding options: so dull. Especiallly when the chefs try to go all arty and do a smear, a quenelle, a tiny square of something, and a droplet. I absolutely loathe that kind of cooking, but most critics seem to love it. I think, yeah, it's great one, but you don't dream about it. You don't wake up in the night going 'I'm gagging for a quenelle of foam".

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  14. My visits to restaurants has declined dramatically over the past two years. Not because of the 10 things you have listed (which are all valid), but because of something you touched on briefly at the start of your post - the amount of things restaurants buy in. I discovered two years ago that I can not eat gluten. I am not doing it to be 'faddy' but because my body genuinely can't cope with it. Most restaurants fail to cater in any way for gluten-free diets. They have a list that tells waiting staff what I can and can't eat, but usually it results in the same formula: some lump of plain protein + boiled potatoes + limp vegetables or salad. No sauce, nothing tasty, just dry bland food. The only dessert I can usually eat is ice-cream. I'm fed up paying full price for what I see as only 1/2 a meal which has had zero thought put into it. It simply isn't good enough to take away items that contain gluten and not replace them with anything. Just because we are gluten-free doesn't mean that we have lost our taste-buds. I imagine this is something similar to the vegetarian / vegan issue. I'd rather spend my money on nice ingredients and make something at home. Plus, I can wear my PJs. (Sorry if this seems a bit ranty, but it really bugs me).

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    1. Kirsten, I can't imagine how difficult it must be. One of the problems though for genuinely gluten-free people is the amount of people who make out they have a problem but they don't. My friend Sylvia, who is Irish, was very ill for years until she found out she was coeliac, which is very common in Ireland. I have to admit I stopped doing gluten-free options because it was so easy to forget stuff like, you are allergic to soy sauce. I felt it wasn't fair, when I wasn't expert enough to cater for them properly. However I have had gluten-free guests when I'm doing say a Mexican meal, which has many corn options. Is that an option for you? Or Asian restaurants that serve rice noodles for instance?

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    2. The whole fad-diet thing has a major impact on those of us who have a genuine issue. I even have 'friends' who thought I was just doing it to lose weight / be fussy for the sake of it. I admit that it is tricky, because gluten can creep into things you wouldn't even think would have it in. Mexican is a good option as you say, because of all the corn. Asian can be a bit more of a mine field because of the soy, as you pointed out. Indian is normally always a safe-ish option because the main carb is rice and on the whole gram flour is used (obviously naan bread and chapati is not suitable) and most sauces are thickened with yoghurt or coconut milk. My mum has suggested that I start a supper club that only does gluten-free meals . . . we'll see!

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    3. There is one already Annies which used to be in Bromley but I'm sure there is room for more!

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  15. I heartily agree with almost all of your points, especially about the noise factor... except about the tiramisu... I like tiramisu (but am particular about it.) Also trifle, and yours sounds like a perfect one! One of your previous commentators mentioned dishes not being adjustable to preference or dietary necessity. I will never go back to a place that will not make reasonable substitutions. In fact, I am about to sign up to Yelp to comment on a particularly bad experience about the lack of substitutions. Christina

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  16. No vegetarian options. It's terrible :)

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  17. Canteen-style seating. If I'm going to pay to eat in a restaurant then I want a proper chair. Benches are a prize pain if you're wearing a skirt.
    I don't much like being able to see into the kitchen either (again, if I'm paying someone to cook for me I don't want to be in the kitchen, ta).

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    1. I'm ok with benches, as often they are shorter than chairs and I can touch the ground. I'm 5 foot 1 inch but all chairs are for tall people!
      I quite like to see the kitchen. But I think if you are paying for a chefs table, I want shoutiness and swearing and proper kitchen behaviour. I want a spectacle!

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  18. From a dark realm where the sun doesn´t ever shine, i. e. where we need well-managed restaurants very badly : I must agree with you. Even my poor skills allow more variety : restaurant-tables are dominated by animal protein. There are hardly geniun vegetarian dishes, thought and composed from the fruit to be cooked, usually only ersatz. Seldom one can discuss the menu, maybe because there is not a cook in the kitchen but a finisher of prepreparations from elsewhere. Wine is too expensive, and too often they sell fashionable names.
    Hippie daze
    Krischan (Silen)

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    1. Yes unoriginal vegetarian options is a pain. It's one of the reasons I often go to Asian restaurants.

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  19. My #1 complaint is Noise, followed by the No Reservations thing. Both ridiculous!

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  20. What a great list. I order veggie dishes most of the time too.. occasionally a chef has tweeted me in advance - so kudos to the lovely @frontlinechef for whipping up some special veggie dishes for me. But yes, the ubiquitous random barley risotto - aargh! And desserts. Not just an afterthought, please. I am just writing a feature about the art of pastry chefs - rarely celebrated, never in the spotlight. So many chefs don't have a sweet tooth they don't give desserts anything like the same consideration as the rest of the menu. Some of us judge a restaurant by the quality of its desserts!

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    1. I had the perfect dessert menu last night at a restaurant, it's as if they had read my 'pudding rules'. Will blog it soon.

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  21. Great list, Kerstin. I agree with most of them, including Tiramisu which I have always found to be bland & horrible. My own bugbears are...waiting staff who refuse to write your order down. I KNOW that they will forget something or get it wrong and they invariably do. It happened just this week at a special lunch. Lots of permutations on the menu and the waiter seemed to think it was a slur on his professional pride to use a pad & pen. We ended up with things we didn't order as well as missing things we really wanted. Also...and this often happens in 'gastropubs' for some reason...waiting staff who have literally just taken your order but make no attempt to remember who ordered what. So they stand there, interrupting everyone, shouting vaguely 'who's is the lamb?' It makes me feel totally uncared about. I waited on tables for years..it takes nothing to draw a little plan on the pad or even write clues like 'glasses' or 'blue top' or even 'big nose'! I don't care how it's done, but it is a little thing that, to me, makes a big difference. Maybe I'm ultra picky, though!! Great post.

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    1. ha great comment. It's always interesting to hear from the perspective of someone who has waited tables!

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  22. Russell Norman wrote to me regarding this piece with some interesting background:

    Hello Kerstin

    I enjoyed your piece but I wanted to point out some inaccuracies.

    I didn't pioneer the "no reservations" idea in London. Far from it. Wagamama started the trend in 1992, followed by many other similar multi-site quality operators like Wahaca and Busaba Eathai. Anchor & Hope opened in the mid 1990s and didn't take bookings, much to everyone's astonishment and 10 years later Barrafina did it again in Soho, opening the first restaurant where queuing was encouraged, I think. I opened Polpo on Beak Street in 2009, many many years after those other pioneers had established that it was appropriate for some types of restaurant to operate without bookings.

    I certainly didn't say I don't want customers from the provinces. I said that it was unlikely people would travel to a restaurant that didn't take booking and so it would encourage the locals to treat it as a neighbourhood restaurant. I still believe that. I hated that there were queues and waits for tables in the early days; I did everything I could to remedy that including decommissioning a private room at Polpo Soho to make more space for diners. I even closed an entire restaurant down (Polpetto) because the waits for that tiny room were so long and it upset me greatly. I'm delighted that we have finally re-opened Polpetto with a better (ground floor) location, over twice the size and with its own bar. Even on very busy nights most people sit down straight away or, at worst, have a 15 minute drink. I'm proud of that achievement.

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  23. What about the interruption to your meal with "Is everything alright with your food?" I hate that. :-)

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    1. Oh yeah, that drives me crazy too. You don't want to be churlish so you have to stop talking, smile at waitperson and say 'everything is lovely'

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  24. Your dessert list made me laugh, so true. Although I disagree on Tiramisu, a couple of weeks ago I ate in an Italian bistro that made its own, from scratch, and it was truly good!

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  25. So true - all of these. I also hate when waiters clear people's plates before everyone is finished. Not so common in London anymore but has happened in Italy and Spain this week - I just think that's rude...

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