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Insider View - Friendliness in Restaurants

Lucy & Johnny Madden - Hilton Park

A timely piece from Lucy Madden about the ideal level of ‘friendliness’ in restaurants - just when we are concentrating our own efforts on addressing complaints from many of our assessors about staff who fail to engage with customers. Pleasing everyone may not be an option, in Lucy’s view.

Few activities are as pleasurable as idling around the countryside in pursuit of a place to eat; time on your hands, a few euro in the pocket and a lusty appetite. This was how we found ourselves on a winter’s day when a sign drew our attention to a restaurant situated at the edge of a lake. We consulted, of course, the GC website for a recommendation and duly made our way through the door.

A cheerful person was waiting at a reception desk. “Hallo folks, how are we today?” Before we had time to answer this kind enquiry, our lady was into her next question, concerning the weather outside and from where had we come? My husband, being a more benign character than myself, found this greeting somewhat charming, I could tell, and was about to engage but a sharp poke in his ribs speeded up a request for a table.

In these days of ludicrous political correction, one is not allowed to call a female person who acts, an actress. Why then, is it permissible to call one of the female gender who waits at table, a waitress? Is it because we don’t attach the same degree of respect to those who serve us while we eat as we do to those who strut the stage? This is incidental, in a sense, but I do believe that the service of others is a noble calling, and one which demands a variety of skills.

One of these, however, is not the art of conversation. You do not visit a place of hospitality to engage in a dialogue, except of a brief and friendly nature, with those providing your food. As someone who has been both at the dispensing and receiving end of hospitality, I know that face to face interaction is a delicate line to tread, not wanting to be there when you are not needed, and to be there where you are. I know a restaurateur in London who owns four different restaurants and is known at each for his public appearances when he will arrive and cruise around the tables, interrupting conversations at will, addressing his customers by their first names and often sitting down at individual tables, alternately flattering and irritating his clients.

There is something in human nature that responds positively, even to the point of being thrilled, at being the first in a crowd to be acknowledged by a chef, or actor, or possibly by a waiter, but there can be few people who visit a restaurant to chat to the owner. These sad souls are most likely to hover and lurk around pubs where they can be greeted by ‘Your usual, Frank?’ Of course, one is pleased to be remembered from a previous visit and indeed to have one’s preferences recorded. The only place, incidentally, where one might prefer not to be remembered, as I have discovered, is the local A and E department which I have visited on occasions with a very accident prone grandson. But that is another story.

The waitresses at the aforementioned lakeside restaurant had clearly been instructed to present a friendly and welcoming appearance to the clientele, much in the way that Tesco and Ryanair have recently learned the lessons of not doing so. But during the course of our dinner (and we counted) we were interrupted no less than 12 times by different people to be asked if ‘everything is all right?’ and twice we were asked where we came from, and had we seen the view from the windows? Grumpy and isolationist I may be, but this incessant chatter only served to irritate, and not to serve.

You might argue that this is preferable to the haughty indifference of waiters in more sophisticated restaurants or to places where waiting staff are more interested in talking to each other than attending to customers, but, as in everything, there is a happy medium.

The art of good service is a subtle and necessary part of the dining experience to which, incidentally, nothing is added by teaching staff parroted phrases such as ‘You’re welcome’ every time they are thanked. And thanking staff is very, very important (a friend says her waitressing experiences of customers’ indifference made her a communist). Another friend currently working at Claridges in London says she is appalled by the rudeness of certain groups of people but puts it down to cultural differences. That, again, is another story.

But pity the poor host, it’s so hard to get it right. A relative whose children run a very successful catering company in London booked in to the Gavroche restaurant using their company name (a process that was far from straightforward} and having dined at this famous Michelin starred restaurant remembered it for one reason only; obsessing that the host Michel Roux who had been in the restaurant had not come over to their table to greet them.

There is just no pleasing some people.

Hilton ParkTogether with her husband Johnny & family, Lucy Madden runs their magnificent 18th century mansion, Hilton Park, Clones, Co Monaghan as a country house which is open to private guests, groups, small weddings and conferences. The restored formal gardens are also open by arrangement. Lucy is a keen organic gardener and also a member of the Irish Food Writers Guild.






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