How to be the ideal diner

Wine waiter pouring

What wine waiters think of us diners. A version of this article is published by the Financial Times.

We are constantly being told of staff shortages in the hospitality industry. COVID seems to have opened many a waiter’s eyes to the fact that they don’t actually have to work such unsocial hours for not quite enough pay.

It’s pretty clear therefore that as restaurant customers we need to modify our expectations. We may be served by someone completely new to the job, or someone decidedly under-trained and/or inexperienced.

With this in mind, I thought it would be interesting to get professional views on the most annoying things we can do as restaurant customers. Because of my particular interest in wine, I asked several people with considerable experience of wine service.

Although as a restaurateur you don’t have to specialise in wine to feel that the single worst thing a customer can do is book and not show up. As Guy Palmer-Brown, wine director at the new NoMad London puts it, ‘one of the worst things, which seems to still be commonplace throughout the industry, is no-showers. It's a chronic problem that seems to be getting worse, especially for the independent restaurants.’

Many restaurants are in such a parlous state at the moment that the habit some people have of making several bookings for the same time and then choosing to honour only one seems especially heartless and can make the difference between operating a meal service profitably or not.

What annoys Donald Edwards, head sommelier at La Trompette in Chiswick, west London, the most is when parties decide to move tables after the water and wine have been served and – a cardinal sin this – outstaying their welcome, especially extending a lunch into the sacrosanct hour between five and six when waiting staff working double shifts finally have a chance to sit down.

Tim Johnston has decades of experience running Juveniles, in Paris, with its particularly strong focus on wine. What riles him most is customers checking the retail price of the wines on his list on their phones and then complaining about the mark-up. Juveniles is far from the most rapacious establishment in this respect and it really is naïve to expect restaurateurs to charge the same as a wine retailer. (That said, there are some other establishments in Paris, and in most major cities, whose wine-pricing policy really gets up my nose.)

Another thing that annoys Palmer-Brown is a phenomenon he says is increasing: ‘asking for complimentary things at the point of booking such as “it’s my friend’s birthday. Can you give us something from the restaurant for free?”, as if hospitality professionals weren’t already on their knees after the pandemic.’

From New York, Laura Maniec-Fiorvanti writes, ‘our restaurants Corkbuzz Union Square and Chelsea Market are doing as well as can be expected. The staffing crisis is indeed a crisis. Restaurants have had to adapt, changing hours of operations, closing two days per week, raising prices and changing service procedures.’

The fact that so many restaurants have decided to close on Monday night, their least profitable, giving their hard-pressed staff a break, is actually not entirely helpful to them. The one thing keen hospitality professionals like to do with their time off is eat out and check out the opposition – or somewhere else they might want to work. Nowadays it can be extremely difficult to find interesting restaurants that are open on Mondays.

Maniec-Fiorvanti continued by email, ‘I would say patience is a virtue many diners do not have. Their expectations that someone should get back to them immediately are not realistic with the labour shortage. We are doing our best. Another thing to consider is that if anyone on our teams has had exposure to COVID, everything changes in an instant. We need to have the entire team take rapid tests prior to them coming back to work despite us wearing masks and only having vaccinated guests indoors. We will get through it but it has been challenging. Kindness towards staff, restaurateurs and the hospitality industry is really what is needed.’

Her injured tone is echoed by Palmer-Brown, who complains that while waiting staff have always been told they should act as though they were welcoming guests into their own home, ‘there is a common trend now that guests don’t act like they are guests of someone else, but rather they feel free to act as they wish’.

Edwards’ restaurant La Trompette, along with the popular Chez Bruce and The Glasshouse, is owned by Nigel Platts-Martin, who is arguably the most wine-focused London restaurateur. The wine lists at his places are impeccable, and benefit from his long-term wine buying. Because Platts-Martin is such a wine lover, he is happy for fellow wine lovers to bring their own special bottles and charges corkage at £30 a bottle for a maximum of two bottles a table. But Edwards feels that bringing a bottle of a wine that is actually on their wine list is not really playing the game.

Edwards is widely admired in the industry for his writing and working out unusual food pairings. He made UK wine history back in May when, in the Australian section of La Trompette’s wine list, he acknowledged the indigenous people relevant to where each wine was grown. Over a modest lunch at King’s Cross Vinoteca (where he paired manzanilla with green olives and gazpacho and an Axel Pauly Mosel Riesling with his pork belly), I asked him what the reaction to his wine list had been. ‘No one seems to have noticed’, he said, adding with admirable pragmatism, ‘but it’s a low-cost innovation which makes it appealing'.

I was rather surprised when he confessed to having had no formal training as a wine waiter, but perhaps the ability to serve is a gift rather than a craft. Platts-Martin would not have hired him if he had not proved his worth. He says the most helpful thing customers can do is give him an idea of the sort of wines they like, and the maximum amount they want to spend. ‘Suddenly a weight is lifted from my shoulder then’, he says.

He is far from alone in fearing for the future of the restaurant business. ‘I can’t see any huge influx of labour so wages will have to increase 20–30%, with commensurate increases in prices. I’m already seeing sommelier jobs being advertised with no response. So there’ll be fewer openings and a host of places will close down. The restaurant scene will be less diverse and less interesting.’

We’d better behave well then.

How to get the most from a restaurant wine list

Engage the waiter if they seem at all interested in wine and ask them questions. Wine professionals love talking about wine.

If seeking advice, do be explicit about how much you are prepared to spend. This is helpful rather than shameful.

If a great mix of different sorts of dishes is ordered, dry rosés or light reds are a particularly versatile choice. Tam is currently singing the praises of Tavel, whose full body can stand up to just about anything. Bandol rosé would do the trick too, though many more mainstream, very pale Provençal rosés might be a bit thin.

Really obscure wines are generally the best value on a list. If they don’t sell themselves via a familiar name, you will probably have to be encouraged to order them on the basis of price.

Don’t worry about the tasting ritual. You should be shown the label first so you can check that the bottle is what you ordered. Do pay attention to the vintage; many wine lists are very careless about them and the year can make a difference to how the wine tastes.

Then when a taste is poured for the host, the purpose is to smell it to make sure it’s not an off bottle, and possibly to taste it so you can check the temperature. There is no point in sniffing the cork; some perfectly sound wine is stoppered by a really malodorous cork and the corks in some badly tainted wines can smell fine.

Don’t be afraid of asking to put red-wine bottles in an ice bucket or back in the fridge if, as is often the case, a red wine is served too warm to be refreshing. If a white wine is so cold you can’t taste it, ask for the bottle to be left out of the ice bucket.

And if you want to avoid needless or over-zealous topping up, insist on the bottle being left on the table.

Don’t think that it’s bad form to bring a special bottle. Ask in advance if you may and how much corkage you will be charged. £20–£25 a bottle is common. Then be sure to order a bottle from the restaurant’s own list too, and leave a taste of your own wine for whoever serves you if they are obviously interested in wine. But be respectful of the restaurant’s stock of glasses and decanters. As one experienced restaurateur puts it, ‘the best thing someone who brings in bottles can do is say please plonk the bottles down after opening, leave us with two glasses and we’ll do the rest.’