I worked as a waiter once. OK, twice. Fine – a few times. I think we all did, probably – unless you’re truly, obviously and obliviously privileged, it’s the one job that will have cropped up on your CV at some point.
It’s a problem, actually, that we’ve all been there, done that. We think we understand what it takes. A fortnight waiting lunches in a quiet bistro (in my case, just about twinkle- and twink-eyed enough to flirt my way through service), and we act like we’ve seen it all, know what we’re chatting about when it’s a pounding Friday night in a real city and our table isn’t ready at 7.30 even though we’ve booked and we turn to each other (deliberately in a waiter’s earshot) and say I mean really – how hard can it be?
I always try to be nice – I’m sure you do, too. Obviously. Read enough writers on the subject, especially female ones (check out this series of vignettes) and you realise that the people bringing us our food endure a lot – sometimes, naked misogyny; also, smaller-scale stuff, myriad miniscule indignities endured without outward complaint – and that the bare minimum you can do is to be empathetic, to relate to them as a human being, not someone your shitty 9.5% tip on a total bill of 25 quid a head allows you to treat like part of the furniture.
That said, our waiter at Bala Baya seems like a proper bellend. The place comes hotly tipped, not least by itself: the website says it’s the chef’s “poem” to Israel, “a kaleidoscopic space that allows you to experience the sun-kissed youthfulness of Tel Aviv from the heart of Southwark”, which if unintentionally bathetic does at least do a fairly good job of laying cards on the table: don’t bother rocking up if your dietary restrictions preclude lashings of chutzpah. I’m not totally intolerant – like a clean eater contemplating gluten, I tend to respond on a case-by-case basis, rather than due to anything biological – but I’ve got to admit the opening show of bravado is hard to stomach. Within seconds of sitting down we have been told they need our table back within two hours; our thrusting young buck has mansplained half the menu to the women at the table after an innocent question and then returned seconds later to take our order when we are clearly whole minutes away from consensus. As service goes, my Jewish companions tell me, it is authentically Israeli – as redolent of the Old Country as the experience of asking for some ice in a glass of water and being told it’s cold enough already.
The food is fine, bordering on really quite nice, though for the prices we’re paying portion size is absurd – like the cook took the descriptor small plates as a challenge. Chickpeas braised into not-quite-hummus with oxtail are a delight to sweep up in hefty pitta; there are decent riffs on aubergine and cauliflower and a weird but enjoyable Asian-inflected crispy chicken (a riff on Jewish-Chinese takeaway fusion?). Calamari with saffron and lime are so good we order another lot straight off the bat – when they appear the best part of two hours later we are (understandably, I’d argue) slightly less covetous.
Yes, the service is a shitshow. Total mess. Our friends bump into someone they know on the way in; as we are leaving they mutter darkly about having to wait 45 minutes beyond the time of their reservation to sit down. I order a beer that never arrives; the agonising wait between deliveries to the table and the tiny dollops of food that do arrive in a drip feed conspire to produce something utterly inimical to the vibes that (I think) they were going for and which the funkily appointed space seems designed to encourage: somewhere boisterous, convivial, fun, where you’d think nothing of ordering another drink or some more of those chickpeas.
To their credit, they wind their necks the eff in about needing our table back, and the waiter we’d initially identified as a haughty Israeli prince cools his jets dramatically, and is not Israeli at all (five points for Hufflepuff if you had Bulgarian!). But there isn’t a huge amount to suggest anyone feels bad about relieving us of fifty quid a head for a couple of drinks each and some starters across a window of time you’d more normally set aside for a Marvel blockbuster.
It’s tricky. I get that they’re in a bit of a bind: kitchens are not machines; they do, from time to time, have a night where nothing really coheres; as a waiter or waitress, there’s not a lot you can do. As a certain female member of my family in full enraged tilt would say, though – has said, several times, to my eternal horror – there’s not nothing you can do. You reading at home can imagine the little gestures they might have made; you are well-versed enough in Danny Meyer’s philosophy to understand that it’s the prudent thing to do, that in the long term everyone benefits.
But you try making that trade-off in a busy restaurant with your kitchen going to shit and twenty tables yammering for your attention; with your back killing you and another three hours left on your shift; with a manager you don’t like and customers you don’t know and something else you’d much rather be doing.
Ask yourself, and be honest. How hard can it be?