Reasons to fall out with a restaurant

cream tea

A friend recently asked me for suggestions of where to go and what to do for their upcoming visit to London. As I was typing out a long list of recommended restaurants, it struck me how many restaurants I was consciously leaving off my list; places which were long-time favourites and which for some reason over the years we’ve fallen out of favour with.

Then I started to think about the reasons why we’d lost our enthusiasm for these restaurants and it struck me just how hard it must be for a restaurant to keep its customers constantly satisfied; especially so in a big city, when most of the time the staff aren’t even aware that someone is a regular diner.

There’s a Korean restaurant in London which was one of our regular haunts. We must have been there at least a dozen times over the last few years. We’ve always been happy with the food, the place is usually full, mainly with young Koreans who chat in a mixture of English and Korean and come in with their shopping bags from nearby Oxford Street. It’s a good place to sit back and watch and listen to those around you and the food generally comes very quickly. Service is efficient rather than warm, but we enjoyed it as a good place to go for a fix of spicy chicken, kimchi and seafood pancake.

On a visit a few months back our waiter told us we hadn’t ordered enough and needed to spend more money (three of us had each ordered a main course and a drink). Odd, rather brusque, but given the previous good experiences we were prepared to overlook it. The two of us returned for another visit a few weeks later and were asked to squeeze onto someone else’s table for four, despite there being another empty table nearby. While it was understandable that they wanted to maximise revenue per table, we know from experience that with our normal order involving five or six plates there is no room for our meal on half a table. We made our excuses and ate at an alternative nearby Korean restaurant, but gave our regular haunt another try (they really had built up a lot of good will). This time the restaurant was quiet but we were again prompted towards a small table. We politely said we’d rather have a larger table and, unwilling to make a scene, the waitress gave in but told us we might have to move if a larger group arrived. This was the last straw and although we did stay to eat that day, we have no desire to return. The goodwill has been fully exhausted.

I’m sure the owners of this restaurant don’t really care as they have plenty of other punters to fill their relatively small restaurant. None of the incidents warranted a major complaint on our part and I’m a very reluctant complainer. Besides, the staff were merely trying to be as efficient as possible. So they don’t know they’ve lost a customer, but if we’ve chosen to stop going there I suspect  others have probably done the same.

That’s just one example of several I can readily think of. I’ll never set foot in a branch of Patisserie Valerie again – apart from what I consider their rather plasticky cakes, our last experience left us feeling ripped off. Having ordered a drink (£2.50) I assumed I’d be getting one of the 500ml bottles that were displayed on the counter. I was shocked to be offered only a small glass of that drink to go with our cakes. Apparently that’s what they serve for customers who dine in; whether that’s company-wide policy or not, we won’t be falling for that trick again. London is not short of good cake shops.

And then there are the places that think it’s reasonable to add a 12.5% or even 15% optional service charge onto the bill. If I’m happy with my meal I’ll tip in line with usual British custom (around 10%) but don’t appreciate a restaurant adding this onto the bill automatically. I’ve only refused to pay it once, after a particularly bad experience in a branch of Thai Square. I crossed out the optional service charge from the bill but felt extremely uncomfortable in doing so. It’s also a reason why we haven’t returned to Masala Zone, even though their food is generally pretty good. The discretionary 12.5% service charge is an unnecessary annoyance and while they are free to apply it as they wish, we’re free to choose alternative places at which to eat where tipping is left to our discretion.

Those are just a few examples but when I reflect on them it’s striking how a place can serve consistently good food and still lose our favour. At the same time it can skip on the smiles and friendly service and still keep us happy. What is it that makes us fall out with a restaurant? Maybe it’s a sense of feeling ripped off or the feeling that we’re not really welcome; whatever it is, it’s a largely intangible thing and that really doesn’t help restaurant owners (or business owners in general) who want to keep their regulars coming back for more.

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Freelance travel writer

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