If it’s the weekend, the chances are you’re reading this column in a café or coffee shop, writes Robert Drewe, and it’s a bit of a minefield out there.
It’s easy to forget that not too long ago breakfast was a meal eaten only at home, privately, without fuss or noise, in the vicinity of Weetbix, tea and Vegemite toast.
As anyone who has tried to find a weekend parking spot near the smell of coffee and bacon can attest, the breakfast boom changed all that. But the restaurant breakfast is only one change in Australian dining habits. Eating out and sophisticated food knowledge, as evidenced by the vast popularity of TV cooking shows and newspaper restaurant reviews, are now a central part of our cultural experience.
I wouldn’t dare step into that professional minefield, but I think I speak for restaurant diners of purely amateur status when I declare the subject is of great interest to us as well. And we notice annoying stuff, too.
Call me a philistine, but the big deal about the waiter holding the left arm behind the back when pouring wine, has always looked pompous and silly to me – like standing at attention on one leg in a supermarket queue — especially when undertaken not by a suave wine waiter but an awkward and self-conscious young waitperson.
On the other hand, the backhand service of a cup of coffee by a bored breakfast waiter in a local establishment is riveted in my memory forever.
It was my second cup (my re-order having been met by the response “Not another one!”) and his languid table delivery while gazing out to sea sloshed coffee into the saucer. In the circumstances I was unprepared, for his sneering reaction when removing the saucer of his own spillage: “You’re messy!”
Another quibble. Is anyone out there actually impressed by the glowing anonymous endorsements and huge number of stars a restaurant might have on TripAdvisor and its online ilk?
Especially when the applause can come from the restaurant itself? Or from the chef’s mother? Or, conversely, when a rotten review is possibly the work of a jealous competitor? Or someone refused service just because they arrived with four drunken mates from the pub and two Rottweilers?
Here’s a simple question for all chic restaurants: What’s wrong with plates all of a sudden? They’ve done a good job for thousands of years. Plates are great for holding food. Peas don’t roll off them, and sauce doesn’t dribble over the edge. They’re much easier for waiters to pick up, stack and carry. They’re not as heavy as wooden chopping boards, for example. They’re more hygienic.
Of course, it’s not just wooden boards, is it? It’s also lengths of slate (why?) and chips served in mini deep-fat fryers. And overnight every drink from cocktails to orange juice is suddenly served in jam jars. Jars wound around with string. String? Why on earth? Jam jars are for jam. Because jars are cute? Not really. Drinks should come in another container proven highly successful over the centuries – glasses.
One other thing: at what moment in time did everyone decide that burgers had to be a metre high? So tall they needed to be kept together with a skewer. Too tall to get your mouth around, thus requiring demolition with a knife and fork, and negating the whole casual-dining point of the burger. (And served on a bloody board, of course.)
Another matter, however unwelcome to wait-staff. Please don’t interrupt an intense or intimate conversation among customers to ask how everything is. “Fine,” we say. “Very nice.” But sad to relate, we really don’t want to talk to you at all. The reason we’re sitting here might be in order to say important things to each other. And it sounds like you’re too eager for a tip.
Listen, I don’t like starchy waiters. Restaurants aren’t cathedrals and diners aren’t archbishops. However, “And what are you having, mate? The same as the missus?” or “I’d go for something with less calories if I were you,” doesn’t pass muster.
In this age of Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat and WhatsApp, this next gripe is directed more at my fellow diners. Just as you want to share pictures of your new shoes and the daily artistic arrangement of your cappuccino froth, I know you’re obsessed with photographing your restaurant meal and sending it to me.
A word in your ear: the picture didn’t come out well. The food looks disgusting. And you shouldn’t have taken the waitperson away from their job to take your photograph with it. Something else, brutal I know: I don’t care what you had for dinner. Never have, never will.
And a final pronouncement to all waiters out there. I don’t need you to place my napkin on my lap, thanks. Since the age of four I’ve managed it myself. If I want to spill gravy on my groin it’s my business. In the memorable words of the London Observer’s food critic Jay Rayner, “I don’t want you ferreting about down there.” It doesn’t look good for either of us.