The British have lost the art of eating out

Social changes mean there is no clear script in service industry scenarios.
jeeves british eating out
Very Good, Jeeves by P.G.Wodehouse. Credit: Lebrecht Music & Arts / Alamy Stock Photo.
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Eating out has become so embarrassing. Invite me to your house, or pick up dinner in a box and I’ll arrange it artfully on a plate, but spare me the pain of watching other people order in a restaurant. 

I may shudder at the cost of the entrecôte, but my real beef is with diners’ ineptitude. Just when did we become so spectacularly bad at being served? Put a waiter or a maître d’ in front of an English person and it’s like two atoms colliding. I’ve watched the quietest soul explode in fury over the sprinkling of coriander on his salmon when he explicitly requested none. Another was so afraid of the curt lady who brought him the wrong starter that he ate it anyway. Worse are those who claim to be uncomfortable with the whole set-up of one person waiting on another and so descend into the most eye-watering display of servility. 

One would think we’d be hard-wired to handle waiters, sommeliers and hotel butlers, at least by comparison with the Americans. A country that produced Jeeves and Mrs Danvers ought to know what to do with their modern equivalents. Some would claim that the fact we don’t represents progress. But forgetting how to receive service with grace is hardly something to feel proud about.  

As a boy, P. G. Wodehouse liked nothing better than to have tea with the servants at the houses he visited, and ‘kidded back and forth with the best of them.’ More influence emanated from downstairs than upstairs cared to recognise. The hierarchy was so often inverted. ‘What does one say to a V.C. [Victoria Cross] butler if one wasn’t in the war oneself?’ Wodehouse later asked upon moving into a new house as an adult. In his novels, of course, the staff usually come out on top.  

War taught men how to be subservient, and the opposite. A chap knew what to do to get the best out of his batman. The orderly could gauge the mood of his superior. You couldn’t be wistful for the system they were part of, but at least there was some intuition on both sides as to how to co-exist and muddle along with each other. That intuition vanished in hard times. (‘I cannot explain the strange Waugh passion for keeping butlers,’ wrote Auberon of his relatives’ decision to keep them well into the 1940s). 

Post-Second World War, suspicion had set in. In light of Wodehouse’s too-clever-by-half valets and the shifty staff that populate Agatha Christie’s novels, there was something to be said for taking matters into one’s own hands rather than entrusting them to somebody else’s. The art historian Kenneth Clark, for one, despaired of the hold the maid and butler had over his parents’ decision-making. He could do little but lament their ‘poisoning the atmosphere’ of the household for almost fifteen years. 

That suspicion lingers on. It’s there in an encounter with the person who presses your trousers. It’s there when someone kneels to polish your toenails. It only deepens when confronted with over-efficiency. You may call it social awkwardness, but really, it’s more than that. Kingsley Amis grappled to put his finger on it after he lunched with John Betjeman and the waiter gushed about what an honour it was to serve the poet. Betjeman reacted with a spiel of his own to the waiter’s detriment. Did he do so out of chronic embarrassment, ‘first-degree embarrassment,’ or plain superiority — the hidden desire of one person to put another back in his place?

It is a combination of things that prompts such behaviour, all underpinned by feelings of inadequacy and questions over one’s status when there’s no longer an official hierarchy to fall back on. Friends who’ve proceeded seamlessly from boarding school to Oxbridge, with its bedders and scouts, and then to Lincoln’s Inn will hardly blink at having a plate placed in front of them. Some are so inured to it they find the staff invisible. Others are far better at swimming courteously through these situations as though they are entirely natural.  

Reading A Waiter in Paris by Edward Chisholm recently, I was reminded of how horrible waitressing can be — I managed a full 22 hours of being yelled at by chefs and hit on by customers as a teenager. But at the same time how much more comfortably one can settle into that role over one that makes you demand your chicken be recooked. There’s no question about it, though. Being fussed over trumps any feelings of shame at not doing something tedious for yourself. If the only alternative to re-learning how to be served is to visit a buffet with a scrum of greedy diners, I’d sooner stay in. Just give me half an hour to prime myself for the delivery driver.

Daisy Dunn

Daisy Dunn is the author of In the Shadow of Vesuvius: A Life of Pliny. Her new book, Not Far from Brideshead: Oxford Between the Wars, is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

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