I made the mistake of asking for black pepper at a trendy local restaurant the other day. The waiter was not happy. “Chef has already seasoned the dish, but I will bring some, if you like,” he responded, looking mildly pained.
The dish was pasta and, admittedly, it was already very good (I did try it first – I’m not a complete heathen), but I love black pepper, and decided it could do with a little more, for my taste. I couldn’t see either salt or pepper on our table or on any of the surrounding tables, so I asked for it.
I’m sure Chef had already seasoned it to his taste, but I was the one eating it, not Chef, and I didn’t feel that either I or my palate needed to be re-educated on this matter.
This was a small independent restaurant, currently very popular and quite cool in that “keeping it simple and authentic and really caring about the ingredients” kind of way. There’s nothing wrong with that philosophy – it’s precisely what many diners feel they are looking for as they tire of the bigger chains – but we don’t need it rammed down our throats or made to feel barbaric as we sit at their repurposed industrial tables amid their partially exposed brick and plaster walls. It’s not as if I had asked for salt, or brown sauce.
Being told off is not my chief restaurant bugbear, because that is wine pouring, in particular the habit (usually by male waiters) of first pouring me a small glass of wine and then pouring out rather more for my husband. Sometimes I line them up side by side to check the levels. Childish, I know, but this gender wine gap is just not fair, especially if my husband drinks his wine faster than I do and the waiters feel obliged to slide by to make frequent top-ups (another annoying habit, incidentally – let us pour our plonk at our own pace, if we prefer). I’m old enough to remember the days when only men were asked to taste wine. I’m afraid I used to confuse waiters by asking my male companion, usually my boyfriend, in a silly baby voice, whether I could be allowed wine too tonight, as a treat, please, please. What can I say? I was young.
Waiting staff often have much to put up with, from low wages to poor staffing, inconsiderate surly management and, not least, stroppy customers (I’m not one, I promise). But frequently there are extremes of service, with waiters either constantly interrupting meals as they pour wine and ask if everything is fine, or else disappearing for ages to some far-flung corner.
On balance, I prefer the “less is more” approach. Attention to detail and service is all very well, but it should be applied with discretion. Unlike black pepper, which should always be close at hand.