The food revolution may have vamped up the UK's food offering but our customer service is still oceans apart from the United States, says Fay Maschler
In 1917, a certain George M. Cohan wrote a song called Over There. The aim was to urge American soldiers to ally themselves to the war in Europe. It started "Johnnie, get your gun/Get your gun, get your gun…" – they don't change – and went on to proclaim "Over there, over there/Send the word, send the word over there – That the Yanks are coming… So prepare, say a pray'r/Send the word to beware…"
I remember humming this catchy ditty when in 1974 I went to try the first McDonald's to open in Britain. It was in Woolwich.
Wimpy, the all too aptly named British imitator and precursor, had not been impressive, so I was ready to concede that McDonald's had brought with them an American approach to efficiency and cleanliness and – for those dark times – a not too bad cup of coffee.
Thirty-three years on, thinking about what other American influences there have been on catering in Britain, the tally is not quite as bright as maybe it could or should be.
Visitors to the United States usually return enthusing about the friendly service in restaurants and the jug of iced water set on the table as the customers sits down.
No British restaurateur is willing enough to forego that easily-won handsome profit on bottles of mineral water to bother with the iced water malarkey and friendly, indeed sophisticated, service has never really been our thing – particularly since we Brits don't like doing it for ourselves.
What has crossed the water is a kind of fauxfriendliness that masks ineptitude – "Hi! Guys" is the usual opener directed at anyone regardless of age or gender – or, worse, the waiter as ambassador from a country of which we know little. The opening gambit of this functionary is "Have you eaten here before?". He or she may as well have said "Have you ever eaten in a restaurant before?", as they proceed to tell you how to order (in a way that suits the kitchen)
and what everything is, including cutlery.
I trace the behaviour back to the launch of Nobu in The Metropolitan when I recollect being told in detail by a charming dope in an Issey Mayake shirt what a strawberry was.
Nobuyuki Matsuhisa – at the very least an honorary American – is the one high-octane chef to have made his mark in Britain. There was talk of Charlie Trotter coming over but he didn't.
You don't get the impression that whoever is the chef at Asia de Cuba or Zak Pelaccio at the egregious Suka restaurant of The Sanderson hotel are particularly keen to burnish their image here. What we have received, not always gratefully, is middle-market Americana often filtered through the lens of the children of immigrants who wished that they had stayed on the boat until it reached New York.
Peppermint Park and Coconut Grove were two such enterprises, as was Widow Applebaum's, a lame effort to emulate a New York deli. There has never been an enterprise in Britain to rival Katz's or The Carnegie nor a steakhouse – despite the efforts of the Honourable Christopher Gilmour – to match Peter Luger's.
It is as if we have never forgotten the war; bountifulness is not our thing.
The one area in which we gladly knuckle under to the notion of munificence is the vulgar tasteless servings of coffee and tea – or hot beverages which is all they are – in places like Starbucks. McDonald's may have pointed the way to coffee better than instant or stewed Cona, but Seattle has diluted the potential pleasure practically to oblivion.
There have been a few hits. Hard Rock Café was one, Joe Allen a genuine revelation and Bob Peyton introduced to Britain more than just deep-dish pizzas with his take on being a restaurateur. But on a recent visit to New York, having visited an array of restaurants with food and service that somehow in London we can never match, I could – like a woefully mundane Elizabeth Smart – have said, By Grand Central Station (oyster bar) I Sat Down and Wept.