Whine and dine
Don't dare ask our columnist Paolo Tullio if he'd like pepper on his dish before he's had a chance to taste it – it's one of his dozen dining industry don'ts
My maternal grandfather had a cafe and ice-cream parlour in Scotland, my paternal grandmother had a bar and restaurant in Italy, my parents had restaurants in England and Ireland, and I had restaurants in Ireland, including one with a Michelin star.
For the best part of 16 years I've been going to other people's restaurants to review them, so you could say I've had a lifetime of restaurant experience, and it's even in my DNA.
As with anything that you do frequently, you'll eventually start to spot patterns. Some of the patterns I see are encouraging, like an increasing awareness of seasonality, local produce, traceability and purity of produce. However, there are also patterns I encounter that instead of encouraging me, fill me with a sense of profound irritability.
Go to enough restaurants and you'll find a panoply of things that irk. I do try to focus on the things that please, but of those that irk there are some that simply can't be ignored. Here are my pet restaurant hates in no particular order.
1 You sit down, the waiter brings you a menu and then returns some 20 seconds later to ask are you ready to order. You say "no", and the waiter goes away and comes back maybe 30 seconds later and asks you again if you're ready to order. You say "no", and the waiter goes off – not to return again for 20 minutes, as though to punish you.
2 Sugar lumps. Would some kind person explain to me the point of sugar lumps? I tend to end a meal with an espresso, and more often than not I'm given sugar lumps to go with it. A properly made espresso will not be boiling hot, and if it's ristretto there won't be much of it. Consequently, it's hard to dissolve sugar lumps in an espresso. Why not just give me granulated sugar?
3 Restaurants that won't let you reserve a table. In the past I've failed to review popular restaurants simply because they wouldn't let me reserve a table. I'm not going to drive up to Dublin if I don't know for sure that a table awaits. "Come back in 40 minutes" doesn't do it for me.
4 Don't you just hate that sommelier thing of pouring your wine and then taking the bottle away so you have to wait for the sommelier to notice that you need a refill. Okay, when it works it adds a level of service, but when it doesn't work it's simply irritating.
5 On the other hand, there are sommeliers who keep topping up your glass incessantly, the object of which seems to be to empty the bottle as quickly as possible so the question can be asked: "Are you ready for another bottle?" (See 'upselling', right.) The actual effect of this is that you have no idea how much you've drunk, which these days is asking for trouble.
6 Tiny tables. I know that high rents and rates mean a restaurateur has to maximise the seating capacity, but there's a point when smaller and smaller tables become counter-productive. I've sat at tables where there was hardly any room for my car keys.
7 No greeting on arrival. This is possibly the easiest and cheapest opportunity to make a customer feel at ease. So it always surprises me when you walk into a restaurant and you find yourself left to your own devices. I can't help feeling that if they can't be bothered to greet me and seat me, how good will the service be?
8 What is the point of asking me if I want pepper on my main course before I've even tasted it? Your main course arrives in front of you and there's a waiter with an over-sized pepper grinder (should that person be called a peppier?) asking if you want pepper. In my view, if the dish needs pepper the chef should have put it in already; besides, if I say "no", the peppier disappears, never to return, so if I eventually decide the dish needs pepper, it's too late.
9 Bad timing. A good waiter times a visit to your table well. You get enough time to read a menu before they come to take your order. They won't ask to take your order just as you're coming to the punch-line of this week's best joke, making the re-telling of it after you've ordered a damp squib. Timing is important too when asking: "Is your meal to your satisfaction?" It's not best done just as I've put a forkful of food in my mouth.
10 Upselling. The best example of this I ever came across was in a Doonesbury cartoon. "We learnt upselling today," says the youth working in the burger joint. Cut to customer saying, "I'll have the cheeseburger" and the youth's response: "Would you like caviar with that?" Now, that's upselling. Watch out for a subtler version, the one where you order a main course and then discover that your steak comes with bugger all – chips, onions and mushrooms all incur an extra charge.
11 Water in quarter bottles. This one really annoys me. Can you imagine a wine list available only in quarter bottles? Water is one of life's most basic requirements and ought to be available in big bottles, just like wine. Selling it only in tiny bottles means you can easily end up paying €10 for a litre of water. When you consider you can buy a litre of petrol for €1.60, €10 for a litre of water begins to look totally insane.
12 This last annoyance isn't commonplace, but it happens in places like large shopping malls. You have to pay to park before you get to pay for your meal. Surely this is very wrong? Ask the shopkeepers of Dun Laoghaire, whose customers have been driven out of the town centre by over-zealous enforcement of parking regulations. The principle surely is to make life easy for your customers. Make parking complimentary for people spending money.