Must be more assertive

My wife and I were out having dinner with a couple of friends and we got onto the topic of annoying habits of waiters in restaurants. The one  that troubled us most was when the staff keep topping your glass up and before you know it the bottle is gone and they are trying to sell you another. My wife, who is American, was surprised by our grouching. ‘Why don’t you just ask them not to?’ We didn’t know quite what to say. It really hadn’t occurred to us that the answer might be that simple.

We as a nation are not very good at being assertive in restaurants. I used to think it was a relic of the class system where no one wanted to appear as if he was lording it but of course most staff in British restaurants would not have the same instinctive awareness of class being from Poland, France or Australia. Nevertheless, assertiveness over here often results in a cold reception and very often spoiled meal.

I remember an incident at Navarro’s Spanish restaurant in Fitzrovia a couple of years ago where I asked for an ice bucket  to go with my very warm bottle of red wine. I was refused and told that I was drinking Rioja which should not be chilled. Eventually I had to ask for the manager who again tried to explain to me that I had ordered a red wine which shouldn’t be chilled. In the end I got my bucket and the rest of the meal had the waiters shaking their heads at me in disbelief.

More recently at the normally flawless Galvin on Baker street I had to send back two lots of fino sherry which weren’t cold. When I told the waiter that it should be served cold, he told he that he knew this. I imagine he thought that I wasn’t worth serving correctly. I had to ask for the undrunk wine to be taken off the bill which they did gracelessly and without apology.

Both times the good (in the case of Galvin superlative) food was spoiled by waiters either thinking they knew best or just not caring. I cannot imagine ever being treated like that in America. There they may think you’re mad but they will always do whatever you ask. We eat out not only to have good food but also to be looked after. If you’re not going to be cared for then what is the point?

Nevertheless, my New Year’s resolution is to be more assertive when I eat out. I am going to combine it with an other worldly cheerfulness. A cheerfulness so cheery that it cannot be dented by even the surliest of waiters. I may need drugs to achieve this state.

My other resolution is to stop ordering expensive wines out. When I had a full time employer who often paid for these excursions, it was fun to explore the £40 price range at restaurants. How I miss the gravy train! My current reduced circumstances mean I have to stick to the house wine or take advantage of the increasing amount of places that are offering wine by the carafe. This way I can still drink the good stuff but sadly not get drunk.  Here are two of my favourite places which offer this service:

32 Great Queen Street, Covent Garden, London – I like this place so much that I had my wedding reception here. The food is gutsy and based on whatever their butcher and fisherman suggest that day, the staff are informal and knowledgeable and the wine list is full of the kind of pungent French wines that I love. Try the marcillac which tastes of iron and cherries.

Terroirs, William IV Street, London – The French (with Spanish and Italian flourishes) food served tapas style is good and occasionally excellent but the highlight is the wine list. All the wine are ‘natural’ (I am going to write a post on ‘natural’ wines shortly) and imported by Cave de Pyrene. Best of all, they have a marsala (Sicilian wine akin to madeira) from De Bartoli – the last traditional producer on the island. They have just opened a new place called Brawn on Columbia Road which I will be visiting shortly.

About Henry

Henry Jeffreys was born in London. He has worked in the wine trade, publishing and is now a freelance journalist. He specialises in drink and his work has appeared in the Spectator, the Guardian, the Economist, the Financial Times, the Oldie and Food & Wine magazine. He was a contributor to the Breakfast Bible (Bloomsbury 2013) and his book Empire of Booze: British History through the Bottom of a Glass was published in November 2016.
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12 Responses to Must be more assertive

  1. Philippa Chandler says:

    Australian waiters have no knowledge of the British class system? Australian waiters enjoy sniggering at a country that has “second class stamps” and where paying an extra £50 for a “first class” train ticket buys you a newspaper (£1) and a cup of tea (£1.20). Australians may not be attuned to the infinite subtleties of British class hang-ups, but they have a pretty good laugh in the meantime.

    Besides, the Australian dollar is so powerful at the moment that you’re less likely than ever to be served by an Australian waiter.

  2. Henry says:

    You’re quite right Pippa. What I should have said is that they are outside our class system so complaining does not generate the same how-dare-he-tell-me-what-to-do-he-must-think-he’s-lord-of-the-bloody-manor reaction that it often does when dealing with one’s own countrymen. I must learn to use my words more carefully.

    Congratulations on your strong currency. What a shame that it has coincided with a decline in your sporting prowess.

  3. Philippa Chandler says:

    I was thinking about this last night – I wonder what role the minimum wage and/or tipping culture have on service.

    In Australia we don’t really tip but that’s because our minimum wage (for a casual) is £10.70 p/h.

    In the UK, the minimum wage is £5.93. But it kinda explains why English staff might be a bit grudging – if they’re being paid a tiny minimum wage YET don’t benefit from a US-style tipping culture.

    In America, the minimum wage can be as low as £3.32. The need for tips might explain why waiters are totally charming!

    So I guess you could argue that the key to great service is to pay waitstaff peanuts and have them perform backflips for tips.

    But (at the risk of sounding all Polly Toynbee) I believe that the key to getting consistent, sincere and ethical service comes from paying people a respectable minimum wage, so that they’re able to lead a decent life and aren’t forced to grovel.

  4. Joe says:

    but won’t the drugs affect your appetite?

  5. Henry says:

    I suppose it depends on the drugs.

  6. Jonathan L says:


    Above all I envy the public transport that gets you home safely after your overpriced, overchilled, underchilled, and un-ordered wine. Odd how the perfect companion posted the perfect companion piece…..


  7. Passionate about wine says:


    American waitstaff doesn’t grovel. It is the attitude that the customer is always right. A restaurant is in the customer service business and if they want to stay in business, then the customer must want to keep coming back. Being poorly treated by the waitstaff will not keep the customer coming back, no matter how good the food is.

  8. Pingback: The legendary lost wine of Marsala | Henry's World of Booze

  9. winesleuth says:

    Try Cafe Luc on Marylebone High St., they do wine by the cafe. I’ve written a couple of pieces on my site. Check’em out 🙂

  10. Pingback: The Bluffer’s Guide to Wine | Henry's World of Booze

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