Food: we all need it, most of us on a daily basis. Sometimes, however, we get bored with sitting down in the same place, day after day, and eating the same things, meal after meal. And so we decide that we're more than willing to spend money on something that's not just a meal, but an experience.
And that is one of the main things that all persons involved must always remember: a restaurant isn't there to provide mere meals, to dish out amounts of food to people who can't or won't get it for themselves...it's an experience. The restaurant provides a service for the consumer, something which is far more than just a meal.
Unfortunately, restaurants are also places where some of the biggest annoyances known to humans can surface, both for the customers and for the waiters, waitresses and chefs of the restaurant. Some people, after being patrons of a restaurant to the extent of a single meal, walk out and declare that this restaurant is the best they have ever been to. Others, coming out of the same restaurant, also after a single meal (sometimes even the same type of meal as that consumed by the first group), are disappointed and even bitter about such an awful experience.
So what is it that can happen to cause such different opinions of this fictitious restaurant? Well, there are some things that each of the people involved will find either mildly annoying, or extremely infuriating, depending on their mood, stress level, eye colour or whatever...
Things That Customers Find Annoying
Being ignored - One of the cardinal sins that any waiter or waitress can commit is utterly and completely ignoring a party of customers, whether they are waiting to sit down, sitting down waiting to order, waving frantically for a little attention, or whatever.
If you are being ignored, you're not being served and you're not having the experience that you think you are paying for. It's even worse when you've got a deadline to get away for and that huge host of waiters/waitresses just seems to be almost deliberately ignoring your every attempt to get the bill.
Slow service - Sometimes due to the waiters, waitresses or chefs being overloaded with customers, this is nevertheless annoying. The length of time after which a customer begins to feel the service is getting slow varies, depending on several factors, most especially whether or not they only have a short time for the meal. This applies not only to serving food, but also to taking orders, clearing finished meals, and so on.
Grouchy or rude service - Nothing puts a cloud over an otherwise happy meal more than staff who would appear not to smile even if someone told them they'd won the lottery.
Extreme seriousness is not always desirable. If a customer tells a joke and the waiter or waitress just stares at them stonily, well, we've all experienced that feeling before!
Rudeness is even worse. Sarcasm, while possibly intended to be funny, is easily misunderstood; and outright insolent comments are sometimes enough to make people just get up and leave.
Undercooked or overcooked food - This happens. Most people are perfectly able to accept that, very occasionally, that steak is just the wrong side of rare, or is just a little overdone. Few people will take offence at this, or see it as a personal insult, but some will. And if the steak that you ordered rare comes out a black and seething husk, well in that case you're not going to just sit calmly and try to chip it into edibility: you'll complain. And if the next one comes back the same way, annoyances can grow.
The wrong food - Far worse than having your food cooked wrongly is not getting your food at all. This happens less frequently than mis-cooks, but is more annoying for all parties concerned.
You order a rump steak, well done - you get fillet, rare. You order a salad - you get some chips. You order an ice cream - you get a curry. More often than not, this is due to either the waiter or waitress writing down the order incorrectly or (and yes, this can happen!) the customer not ordering the right dish. You meant to say 'and a basket of chips', but somehow it turned into 'and garlic bread'. And this is the worst-case scenario because often nobody spots the mistake - it's written on the order, but apparently it's wrong.
Arguments - The ultimate in bad service is when the waiter or waitress argues with the customer. Most people accept that while the customer may not always be right, they cannot be told that fact to their face. But after a long hard day serving people whom they perceive to be ungrateful and picky, some staff will take any excuse to prevent further hassle. Unfortunately this often has the effect of creating it. Such things as 'I'm afraid this wine is corked' can sometimes be followed by a negligent sniff and the retort 'No, it isn't'. This can utterly incense the customer, and rightly so. They are paying for this wine, and if they say it's corked then dammit, it's corked, and no two-bit service provider is going to tell them otherwise! This is one of the major faux pas that can result in a customer leaving the restaurant, for good.
Early clearing - Nothing is more frustrating than that moment when you know you are going to be able to finish a meal, clearing your plate and feeling satisfied, and some waiter or waitress swoops down and snatches your plate away, apparently not realising that you had not, in fact, finished. This is compounded by the embarrassment you may feel at perhaps having to say, 'Excuse me, I hadn't finished', and be marked out as the slow eater of your group.
It's not all one-sided, however. The restaurant staff are, after all, human too, and please do bear in mind that hour after hour, day after day, they have to deal with things the like of which some people can never comprehend: customers who smoke in the non-smoking section; non-smokers in the smoking section; people who move between the two, lighting up in the wrong one; people who order something and then change their mind when it's just being cooked; all this and far, far more.
So, customers, please have a heart and appreciate all the hard work these people do. When their tempers fray it's usually not rudeness, it's not that they want to frustrate and annoy you, it's because they've just been trodden on so many times that they need to assert the fact that they are not merely a noisy, animated doormat.
Things That Staff Find Annoying
Being ignored - This is annoying not only for customers, but for staff as well. Standing before a table of people who are merrily chatting away, you realise that they're quite ready to order, that they'll read it out clearly, carefully pronouncing every word, so you can write it all down. You stand, pen and pad poised, and ask, 'Are you ready to order?'
This question, of course, is followed by no response whatsoever. The customers, it seems, view you as some kind of inanimate object which might occasionally make a noise but is nothing to worry about. They will not even acknowledge your presence until they have discussed and pondered every event that has occurred since the evolution of homo sapiens. While this may not initially seem to be a bad thing (no order means no food required to be served), you quickly realise that it isn't so good when the restaurant is getting ready to close and those people are still sitting at the table.
Garbled orders - Asking a member of a group to repeat the item they ordered is not ordinarily a problem - nobody is 100% alert all the time, and everyone mishears an order and needs to check it. But when a customer speaks so quickly that you are forced to ask them to repeat the order six or seven times, and even then you are only fractionally certain you got it right, it can become annoying.
Orders that change during cooking - There is no problem with the customer asking if they can have peas instead of beans, for example. Customisation is an important part of the restaurant experience - after all, they're going to be eating this stuff. What is annoying is when an order is taken, is definitely correct, is cooked, is served - and is then proclaimed by the customer to be completely wrong.
Some excellent examples are: customers seeming to order steaks, specifying a cooking method, checking that it does indeed come with half a tomato, and then on receipt of the food claiming that they ordered scampi, or chicken. Small errors, believable errors, are seldom a problem; but when everyone is well aware that the received meal is what was ordered, arguing that it is not is more than annoying, it is infuriating.
People who forget - Everyone gets absent-minded, but there are not many people who can forget an item of food that they specified a few minutes ago. Many things are less embarrassing than walking out of the kitchen, up to a table, announcing in a proud voice, 'One well-done fillet steak?' and getting in response an interesting array of blank faces.
The slow (or non-) eater - These are the people who tell you their order, accept the food with nary a complaint, sit back - and leave it. Endlessly. Painfully. They sit, and sit, and do not eat. Occasionally they might prod the food with an item of cutlery, eliciting sharp breaths from staff who are watching... but the tension drains as they put the cutlery down and continue talking. This is irritating to the staff because it is a huge error to start clearing the table before everyone has finished eating, and so you are held in a kind of limbo until such a time as the people either eat their food or realise that it has fossilised.
The Monopoly man - We've all met him (or her, but let's stick with the male pronoun for clarity's sake): the customer who thinks that you are his slave, and his alone. The rest of the restaurant fades away, there is nobody around but himself and you, the staff who must serve his every whim. You hear the cry just as you are midway through balancing a precarious stack of plates on your left earlobe: 'Excuse me, could you show me where the wine list is?' As you return and point out the wine list, cunningly hidden in the middle of his table, he looks at it disdainfully and asks, 'Is that all you have? Could you perhaps go and see what else there is?'
This kind of person is the bane of every waiter and waitress, as they reduce everyone's ability to run the rest of the restaurant. The best solution is to get this person through their meal and out the door as quickly as possible - or to ignore them1.
The non-tipper - This should be one of the greatest annoyances of the restaurant but, alas, it has become so commonplace in modern times that it is now looked upon merely as mildly disappointing. There are people who will take the service that waiters and waitresses provide, use it in any way they deem fit, complain, and order that things be made to suit them - and then give no recognition of this service whatsoever. A tip is surely not too much to ask, especially if you have just paid for a full-blown meal2.
The insult tip - Forgetting to tip is not, however, the most aggravating of things that can happen when a customer leaves. Worse is when, whether meant deliberately, or purely through blind petty ignorance, the tip is so small as to be insulting to the staff. This is not a pleasant thing. Not leaving a tip at all can be viewed as an oversight; leaving a single penny or two as a tip seems to be crafted with malicious intent. If, of course, you merely leave the change from that £50 note on the table, then there is no problem; it is when it is obvious that the customer has deliberately premeditated their tip and designed it to degrade the image of the service given.
So there are many problems that occur in restaurants, on both sides of the house. Surely there must be some simple guidelines that can be followed, to minimise the friction that occurs, and to brighten the event for everyone and ensure that the sun continues to shine over our wonderful Fictitious Restaurant?
Every restaurant, however, is different. There are doubtless many waiters and waitresses now reading this and thinking, 'That's nothing like our situation!' Perhaps not. But perhaps for just a few of you this entry evokes some shred of empathy. Perhaps some of you have been customers at a restaurant and are sitting there, nodding sagely and thinking, 'Yes, that happened to us'.
Let's hope that some of the following can help to make the lives of a few people marginally less irritating.
Things Customers Can Do
Be polite - Nothing is worse than a deliberately aggravating person.
Catch someone's eye - If you see a waiter or waitress standing nearby, apparently looking at you, it might be worthwhile catching their eye, especially if you haven't ordered yet.
Wait a little - If you want something that isn't especially urgent, such as another drink, and you can see that the only staff member available is extremely busy, you'll be surprised how much easier you'll make their life if you're willing to wait a few moments longer.
Raise your hand - The best way to 'catch' a waiter or waitress (though there is much debate about this) is still that method preferred in school: raise your hand. Not in a childish manner, of course, and there is no need to stick it straight up like a flagpole, but just raising your hand slightly above the heaving masses is often enough to draw the waiter's or waitress's eye, and often their attention as well.
Try to remember what you have ordered - Please!
Be polite - 'Please' and 'thank you' go a very, very long way to showing your appreciation.
Show respect - Do appreciate the service you are getting. The waiters and waitresses might be getting paid to do a job, but that doesn't mean that they don't deserve a little respect.
If possible, tip - If service is not included in the bill, a fair tip (not even necessarily a 'good' one, but a fair one) is much appreciated. Please do try to avoid the Insult Tip. The usual amount in many countries is about 10% - 15% of the bill total.
Things Staff Can Do
Be polite! What goes for customers certainly goes for you!
Be aware - Try to pay attention to who is doing what in the area that you are serving. If you realise that the customers at the big table nearby have been sitting down for a while and may be ready to order, go and find out if they are. Don't leave it until you know that they are, because by then it may be too long a wait.
Get it right - This goes without saying, obviously, but get the order right. One thing that helps immensely is if, when you have finished the order, you read it back to the customers. If they all nod and say 'Yes, that's right' you've gained a feeling of confidence. If not, you've got a chance to rectify the situation before it becomes a problem.
The customer is always right - And even if they aren't, don't let them know. A self-righteous waiter or waitress has the potential to completely ruin a customer's day. If they say that they ordered something when you know they didn't, just accept it! Say you're sorry, there appears to have been a mistake, you'll try to fix it, and see if you can get them what they claim they ordered.
Let people finish - Make sure people have finished eating before you clear their plates away, even if it means resorting to verbally asking them.
As has been mentioned, the guidelines above are variable. Every restaurant is individual, and every customer and staff member likewise. In the end, it's all down to personalities and satisfying the most people. If everything is falling down around your ears; if customers are screaming at you; if your waiter or waitress just told you not only where to get off but how far to jump as well; if the kitchen is on fire; if the food is evolving into some new form of life; just take a deep breath, relax, and realise that at the end of the day, it's more than a meal - it's an experience.