Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Right of reply to Michael Shmith's 'A-Z of Restaurant Etiquette' published in 'The Age' October 13

Every Tuesday morning I slip on my uggies and head out to the front yard and gather my home delivered copy of ‘The Age’. After getting Imogen’s brekkie and sorting out Henry with a bottle and a clean nappy, I settle down with my coffee and ready myself for updates on what Andrew McConnell is up to – seems he must be on holidays.

Last week (October 13th), ‘The Epicure’s’ cover story was ‘The A-Z of Restaurant Etiquette’ by Michael Shmith, a former editor of the broad sheet in Travel and the arts and former director of communications for The Australian Ballet. In his story on Restaurant Etiquette, Michael writes on the multitude of sins that are carried out by wait staff and restaurants in a very generalist manner. After reading it for the first time I put it down to just another journo who has probably never worked a restaurant service in their life (just like this blogger has never had the pressure of writing to a deadline, uni stuff aside), but after reading over some of the misdemeanours for a second and third time, I was not sure whether Michael was trying to be either funny or make a genuine statement, for as Erin said, he failed in both attempts.

Finally, with pen in hand I trolled over the story again and made denotes next to ’letters’ where he had completely lost the plot. It seems to Michael, that it is the restaurant staff in general who lack certain skills you may say, in etiquette.

So, here is my ‘Right of Reply’ to Michael’s story in ‘Epicure’ on the ‘A-Z of Restaurant Etiquette’ with the assumption that you have read Michael's; here goes!

A Austerity it seems Michael is what all restaurants suffer from; owners need to pay bills my good man, and I think you certainly need to name names when it comes to a restaurant serving instant coffee. I am not sure I would classify the Diggers Rest truck stop Roadhouse as a restaurant Michael.
B Now the bill is always a tricky one I reckon, for I have from time to time offered diners a free drawing lesson if they have the time. I think the whole idea of writing on your palm with your imaginary pen is one of the areas that is totally lacking in etiquette. Unless it is approaching midnight and your carriage is going to turn back in to a pumpkin or the babysitter is going to sacrifice your children in some demonic ritual, then simply asking for the bill after a tea and coffee order has been taken should do. B is also for booking Michael, something I hope you have when you head out. This would probably ensure you not have to wait 45 minutes. The only other reason for this is that the people who are still at your table were themselves late for their booking – we will cover this in ‘T’ for tardiness. What about BYO I hear you ask – don’t, cos’ I won’t accept it unless you have phoned ahead!

C I have no argument with you here Michael. If you do want to avoid crowding though, I would recommend you do not make a booking at a restaurant between November 19 and December 25. There is no bigger put off when walking through the doors of a restaurant than seeing hoards of tables crammed together, with your cosy table for two stuck dead in the middle.
D As far as I am concerned, degustation’s should either be left for lunch or limited to about seven courses at night. Next time you have a dego Michael I am sure the waiter will not tell you what is on the plate or how it was cooked; we are only up to ‘D’ and it is quite apparent of your dislike for this profession.
E Entrance? Is that the best you can come up with! My A-Z would have ‘E’ on entree. Now entree as a main is OK, just as long as you also have an entree as an entree. Having a $15 meal as your meal is really a bit of a slap in the face of the restaurateur.
F Yes, God forbid the waiter show some decorum Michael. A good waiter is the one you see when you need them, yet the waiter you want is one with a personality of a shadow; a good waiter Michael is one that can read the moment and take their cue from their dinner guests.
G Lets talk about a very touchy subject – Gratuity. Back in the 1880’s around the taverns of Fleet Street London, four gentleman enjoying lunch left a little bit extra with the bill, a gesture that was used to insure promptness; and the tip was born.
H You really got up on the wrong side of the bed the day you wrote this didn’t you. I agree, it can get rowdy, but singing Happy Birthday is an age old tradition and the first restaurant to ban it will soon find a big arse padlocks on the front door. H is also for humour, for anyone working front of house (FOH) needs one when dealing with prickly customers. As I said earlier, I have in the past asked customers if they would like a drawing lesson when they have scribbled on their palm as a request for the bill and never have they taken offense.
I What are all of the restaurants out there in Chinatown going to do now that imitations are no longer Kosher. Who is the restaurant that first served Peking duck and Salt and Pepper squid, for now they surely have the right to be the only restaurant in town to serve these culinary marvels!
J Simply, you have got to be Joking!
K Once again, I think you should be naming names when it comes to this and the ‘1985’ cutting. These Kudo’s are sometimes the only method a restaurant has when it comes to pulling people in from off the street; it seems that there are only a handful of eateries here in Melbourne that can afford PR companies to get their names in print.
L This one I have had trouble with. Yes, sometimes menu’s do read a little wanky and restaurant names are sometimes taking a lend, but I think the Language should also be about the filth that can be heard by some tipsy and even sober customers. One memorable fellow could not contain is disappointment in the wine list I was managing with the ‘F’ bomb coming out on more than one occasion – ‘I am angry’ as he put it about my list eventually made me chuckle at the bloke, who eventually ordered a Cape Mentelle Shiraz from Margaret River. His anger centred on the fact that there was none of his favourite wines. I did my best to placate his quandary but it was all to no avail - he was angry, and his wife was embarrassed; she left a 50% gratuity. A winelist is nothing to lose your cool about, and as the manager of the restaurant I was working at said, ‘If he wants to get angry, get angry at the 50,000 children who die each day’.
M In my experience, you are either damned if you do have music or damned if you don’t. I gotta say though that St Germain ‘Tourist’ should be banned from every cafe, bar, pizzeria, Laundromat and everything in between God dammit! M is also for manners, something everyone, be it FOH, chef or customer have when they walk through the doors.
N Noise hey, I reckon 'N' should be for napkins, something Stephen Downes has always had an issue with. I recently had lunch with Erin at a once hatted restaurant in Melbourne and was shocked to discover paper napkins folded on the table. I have always said that the staff needs to be as good as the menu and the winelist, and the menu and the winelist at this restaurant were first class, yet the napkins? Come on!
O Oil falls into the same category as music I reckon; you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Nobody knows what is too much or not enough.
P 'P' is definitely for punctuality! Yes, the oversized phallic symbols passing as pepper grinders are certainly intrusive and best left back in the 1970’s or on Lygon Street Carlton. Now people, if you have a 7.00pm booking, showing up at 7.30 or 8pm is going to throw the whole service in to the shit, but I will cover this more thoroughly in ‘T’.
Q If you do not like queuing, either make a booking or forget about getting a table at Cumulus Inc or Mo Vida.
R I find it absolutely impossible to believe your remark that, and I quote, “More often than not, restaurant managements are coy about letting one know where to go.” Where the hell are you eating Michael, Bangladesh? Though my favourite comeback to diners when asked if we have toilets is ‘No, we use the trees across the street!’
S The only time you should be scared of Specials is on a Monday when the restaurant offers a ‘seafood special’ – this generally means that the seafood from Friday or maybe Saturday is only a service away from the bin; steer clear folks, I mean guys, I mean Sir and Madam!
T No argument with you here Michael, but I think the real issue is with Tardiness. The number One pet hate during a restaurant service is people showing up for a booking when they want. All good restaurants out there stagger their bookings so as to allow the kitchen and FOH to ably manage the service without any stuff ups. When a booking is late, and NO service in Melbourne is without a late booking, it creates undue pressure on both FOH and the kitchen to now manage a heavier work load in a designated time – when you rush you make mistakes, and it is the customer who directs blame at the restaurant, not the tardiness of other diner’s.
U I’m tipping that the next time you go out for diner Michael, you will probably get very unenthusiastic service. Did a waiter run over your puppy when you were 10 Michael? Your distaste of wait staff seems to be quite deep seated to me. Yet not only can there be unenthusiastic wait staff, there are also quite a few unenthusiastic diners. One that comes to mind very quickly is the daughter of a very well to do couple, regulars as well at the restaurant that I was working at. Every time that she joined them for dinner, it seemed to me that it was all just a big chore. When asked for a wine recommendation from the dad, she would but in with, ‘No, I have had so much Giaconda lately, and don’t try and recommend the Leeuwin Art Series Chardonnay, I had it with lunch!’ Geez!
V I like my restaurants close to the ground. ‘V’ for me is vertigo; working recently at The Point restaurant in Albert Park was high enough let me tell ya!
W All hail the Waiter!
X The x-rated thing should also be directed at the customer. About seven years ago I had a brief stint in a restaurant that was aligned to a pub that attracted the ‘cashed up bogan’ brigade. Just before a busy Saturday night service, a couple of girls who had a booking for about 15 diners arrived with a box of paraphernalia that included rubber penises’, balloons shaped as penises’, penises’ with feet that jumped up and down.... you get the picture. To their disgust however, I quite categorically said that none of the contents of the box would be allowed on the table during service. Well, during the said service, on at least five times did security have to come in and escort revellers from this group out of the restaurant; it seemed that recreational drugs, fake penises’ and cheap BYO Sauvignon Blanc do not mix.
Y I wouldn’t have it any other way, nor would my four year old daughter Imogen who absolutely loves the fast and furious pace of Yum cha.
Z Zero-tolerance indeed. I hope next time when you head out without a booking that the Andrea Bocelli tune playing causes you to spill your cocktail with umbrella all over your nice clean white shirt while you wait next to a tree where a fellow dinner guest who is late is taking a leak while trying to decide what special to have with his cheap bottle of BYO Sauvignon Blanc.


  1. As someone who has been in restaurant business for the past fifteen years all I can say is.... it is Tim Cohen and not Michael Schmith who should be writing that column. Love your style.

  2. but .. but .. sometimes you just want your bill. Is an unobtrusive little mime so incongruous?

    Perplexed and mortified...

  3. Dear Perplexed and mortified

    Perhaps, but surely restaurant drownings have not occured for a least a century or two - by this I mean the wave!

    I know people out there want their bill, all that is asked of them is a little patience and decorum; waiters are people too!!!!

  4. The Age spent a lot of time and money trying to rebuild its foodie reputation after Lethlean and Wilden walked. One flippant, vacuous and downright nasty article from Michael Shmith burns it all. Meanwhile the Oz and the blogosphere goes from strength to strength.

  5. You are right, it was nasty!! Yet I do not believe that the current form is working in regards to the very miopic way they cover Victoria's food and wine scene - the same people are continually written about I feel.

  6. Yes I did like your Andrew McConnell reference. Good stuff.