Pet peeves about serving staff

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 09 June, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 09 June, 2011, 12:00am


I eat out a lot. Not just for work (I review two restaurants each week), but also because I like to relax over meals with friends - something I can't do if I'm cooking for them (although I like to do that, too).

Most of the time, Hong Kong waiting staff are - at the very least - efficient: they take the order and bring the right food to the table. Occasionally, I come across a waiter or waitress who's excellent; that is, not just efficient but also welcoming, friendly (but not too familiar) and perceptive. And this isn't necessarily just at the high-end places.

As much as I appreciate someone else cooking for me, I have pet peeves when it comes to being served. Not all of them are the waiter's fault - some of the problems come from bad training, or - with places that belong to a large restaurant group - ridiculous corporate policy.

The major annoyance happens when I'm in the middle of telling some anecdote, just ready to deliver the punchline, and the waiter interrupts abruptly, asking if we want to order. I can understand this at a noodle shop or cha chaan teng, where they want to get us in and out as quickly as possible. After all, paying HK$15 for a bowl of wonton mein doesn't give you the right to linger. But at mid-range and higher-rated restaurants, the staff should discreetly wait for a pause in the conversation before asking if you want sparkling or still water.

That's another annoyance. I've been told - primarily by the restaurants in SoHo - that the only water options are sparkling or still, and that they don't (won't?) serve tap water, giving some sorry excuse that it's not fit to drink. Hong Kong is not a third-world country, where the water comes from the local well and needs to be disinfected and/or boiled to be safe to drink. Yes, I realise that restaurants make a large profit from selling drinks (usually, there's a minimum of a 300 per cent mark-up), but let the customers decide where they want to spend their money, don't force them to do it. If the only options are 'sparkling, still or no water at all', I might pick one of the bottled waters, but I'll resent paying for it.

Still on the subject of water, I get annoyed when a server plops a slice of lemon or lime into my glass - even worse, when it still has its seeds (which are extremely bitter). They usually do this if you're drinking sparkling water, so they don't accidentally refill the glass with still. But lemon or lime adds bitter and sour flavours to the water, and this can really affect the taste of any wine you may also be drinking. It's fine to add citrus if you're making sangria (which uses inexpensive wine), but it shouldn't come anywhere near a bottle of fine wine. So servers, find another way to differentiate if a person is drinking sparkling or still.

Of course, I could go on and on with ways servers can negatively affect the dining experience - like why do they always try to seat me at the worst table, even if I've made a booking and the restaurant is almost empty? (In my opinion, 'bad' tables should be reserved for walk-ins, not those who have taken the trouble to book.) And what's with the earphones that many servers use so the kitchen can tell them when their orders are ready? It means they're listening to the kitchen, rather than paying attention to the customers in front of them. An experienced server can tell when it's time to pick up an order, without needing earphones.

None of these annoyances is big enough to stop me from revisiting a restaurant if the food is really good. But if the food is just OK, a bad server can make me decide never to go there again.