First, a disclaimer: I can be charmed. I’m not immune to charisma. Nor am I entirely anti-social (just 43%). In my life, I have met restaurant staff with the dry wit of droll stand-up comedians, engagingly loopy owners and, in starchy Michelin-star venues, waiters whose easy directness has instantly put me at ease. I enjoyed their company. They added to the experience.
But service is not a deal-breaker for me. As long as it is civil and efficient, as long as the food arrives promptly, in the right order, I am happy. This, I feel, is realistic. Only a tiny minority of staff are capable of turning waiting-on into a dazzling, disarming performance. Even then, this is a tough gig. It is difficult to pull that off twice daily with sincere energy. Fundamentally, I don’t need schmoozing. I need serving. Yet, increasingly, restaurants want guests and servers to bond. God help us.
In the past decade – the post-Polpo epoch – service in UK restaurants has been transformed. It is more relaxed and casual and, mostly, I love that. But the grating, faux-matey way this manifests itself in some quarters (waiters announcing “hi, guys” as they crouch tableside explaining the menu and purring “great choice” repeatedly), is now morphing into a service style I find negatively pushy and intrusive.
What I am calling The Upbeat Interrogative appears to be based on the idea that firing inquisitive personal questions at guests (“So, guys, are you having a great weekend?”; “Have you got anything exciting planned for the rest of the evening?”; “What brings you to Leeds on a Thursday?”), will make them feel personally attended to. You are more than a table number to us. We care.
Is anyone fooled by this? Am I alone in finding it less deep and meaningful, and more deeply awkward? As a naturally private person, my instinctive reaction when quizzed by strangers is: mind your own business. I dislike over-familiarity. Plus, it is a failing, I know, but I can’t do small talk. I am genetically condemned to tell the truth. Ask me how my day is going and if the answer is “shit”, I will tell you. No one wants that, do they? No one wants to hear me moaning.
I am also confused by the dynamic here. Is this new-found interest in my welfare supposed to be a two-way street? Am I supposed to ask how the waiter is? Or what they are up to after their shift? That would be plain weird.
This attempt to create the illusion of false intimacy is very now: typical of how social media and modern corporations attempt to make us feel emotionally valued, even as that value is expressed in the worthless currency of personalised online messages, RTs, likes or, here, banal private enquiries.
Interestingly, I can imagine that for many diners these enquiries will only compound the anxiety that social media supposedly fosters. This is the era of competitive, performative leisure, where people feel compelled to demonstrate how they are #winningatlife across multiple channels, regardless of whether they actually are IRL (in real life). Being interrogated like this (was I sufficiently enthusiastic, was I boring, did my plans sound mundane?), can only add to that.
In short, these questions feel like a test, which is a curious position to put guests in. Particularly when (quite understandably, they are busy), staff seem only loosely engaged with your answers. Respond with anything but vague platitudes and, frequently, staff blank. Baffled. They are expecting pleasantries, so why arm them with such personal questions?
This is not a conversation spurred on by genuine curiosity, it is a script – one that insults us all.
This is a web version of an article that first appeared in the May issue of Restaurant magazine, the leading title for the UK's restaurant industry. For more features, comment, interviews and in-depth analysis of the restaurant sector subscribe to Restaurant magazine here.
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