Part Six

Posted By on August 16, 2007

“No, We Are Not Being Served”

.: In my twenty-one years of experience as a dedicated food eater, I’ve noticed a standard protocol which every American restaurant follows religiously:

  1. You enter the establishment.
  2. The hostess smiles and leads you to your table.
  3. The waiter asks what you’d like to drink.
  4. The waiter returns promptly with your drink.
  5. The waiter asks what you’d like to eat.
  6. The waiter returns with your food as soon as it’s ready.
  7. The waiter periodically refills your drink.
  8. You signify when you are done by resting the cutlery on your plate.
  9. The waiter takes your dishes away and returns with the check.
  10. You evaluate the waiter’s performance and tip accordingly.
  11. You leave the establishment, proud to be an American.

.: Deviations abound per local flavors, but the basic form is found everywhere in the United States.

.: London restaurants, in contrast, operate on an altogether different principle, which is to say none at all. You enter a restaurant, which you realize on closer inspection is actually a pub. They serve food there, but you’re not sure you want it. You sit patiently, foolishly expecting someone to come take your order. Later, you approach the bar and wait for the bartender to acknowledge you. You stand two feet from him and think he sees you, but he doesn’t. Eventually you learn you must stare intensely into his eyes before he accepts your existence. You order your drink and meal together, and he leaves to make your drink, forgetting to write down the second half of your order. He somehow delivers your drink without noticing you, and you start the whole process of getting his attention over again. (Or you could be like the seasoned local who slams his body against the counter and yells, “Two pints of Guinness, mate!”) You finally order the rest of your meal, and your bill is somewhere north of £10. You try to pay with a £50 note, and the bartender, annoyed by an utterly illusory inconvenience, asks if you have anything smaller. You say no, this is all you’ve got. He snatches the note from your hand and effortlessly makes exact change. You wonder what the fuss was about, sit down, and eat your food one hour later when it arrives. Your final disappointment comes when you realize the staff doesn’t expect to be tipped, so you can’t leave a $.13 “Fuck You” tip as a commentary on their service. Or your experience could be nothing like that — there’s really no telling since there’s no consistent, inter-restaurantal service protocol in London.

.: Oscar and I avoided those hassles by ordering pizza at an Italian restaurant. Europeans invented the familiar cutlery we used today, so it’s somewhat understandable that they would use it for everything.* I believe one of the Treaties of Paris stipulated that pizza should henceforth be consumed with one’s hands, but Europeans are nothing if not adamant in their backwards, counter-intuitive, anti-obviously-the- correct-manner-to-eat-certain-food ways. Forks are simply ineffective against flatten foods. Pizza should be sliced before served, and each slice should be cradled by one’s fingers in that familiar, satisfying fashion. There’s no shame in touching your food.

“On our trip to England I noticed something obscene/People still actually give a shit about the Queen”

.: We stumbled into an inviting pub after visiting Windsor Castle (summary: The Queen is extravagantly wealthy for no good reasons and a single exceptionally bad one: her ancestors convinced an entire nation that the monarchy was divinely mandated by Lord Jesus God Ghost himself). The pub was the kind of place with menus and silverware on the tables, so we assumed there were servers who would come take our order. We waited patiently until an employee corrected us, “You have to order up here at the counter.” Once there, I asked for fish ‘n’ chips and a lemonade. The employee informed me that drink orders must be placed at the bar. I paid for my fish ‘n’ chips (“You don’t have anything smaller than a £20?”) and told the nice gal behind the bar that I would like a lemonade. We Americans may have our many faults as a society, but one thing we don’t do is charge £4.30 for a scant 20 centiliters of soft drink. “Lemonade”, by the way, is English for “Sprite”.

.: I sat back down at the table just as Oscar left to make his order. He returned several minutes later with two dark drinks in his hands and a ghostly look on his face. “I just wanted a tea,” he whispered. “Tea” in English apparently means “Pimms & Lemonade and a pint of Guinness”. Twelve minutes had passed, and in that time I amazed myself with my superhuman ability to consume all three sips of my drink. Consequently, I was without liquid refreshment, so his ordering mishap seemed to work well in my favor.

Anybody who wants to see me drink will have to take me to London.

.: I say “seemed to” because I actually strongly dislike the smell and flavor of nearly all alcoholic drinks. I sampled the Pimms & Lemonade Sprite and enjoyed it precisely because it did not taste like alcohol. Oscar enjoyed it too, which meant I got the pint of Guinness.

.: Bitter, bland, flat, gross, and nauseating are adjectives I reserve for superior flavors (like pickle juice and vomit). Bath water has better aftertaste. Why anyone would willingly imbibe a concoction this terrible is no mystery to me: there’s alcohol in it; who cares if it’s any good! I downed five sips in fifteen minutes before giving up:

[Update: commenter Josh tells me this is Bitter, not Guinness.]

.: We went to another pub for dinner where I nearly had to slap the bartender to get his attention. “Pimms & Lemonade,” Oscar and I both said. Oscar ordered the Mash & Sausage with no gravy. I tried to follow with an order of Chicken Kiev, but the bartender interrupted me, “Together or separate?” I didn’t know if he was referring to the payment scheme or if he wanted to know whether we wanted the drink and meal brought to us simultaneously. “Together,” I responded. I paid for Oscar’s food and drink, but the bartender scampered off before I could finish my order. He returned with Oscar’s Pimms & Lemonade, clearly saw my fingers cocked in the “Excuse me, I would like your attention” position, and promptly vanished.

.: Another bartender appeared and told me to order with the other people at the opposite end of the room. I wound up waiting ten minutes and decided it would be best to order only the drink; food could be found elsewhere.

.: However, I still had to wait for Oscar’s food. “Wait” is a somewhat subjective term. It can mean different things to different people. When a friend pulls up to a gas station and says “Wait here,” you can expect to see him again in a few minutes. When a doctor says you’ll have to wait for the results, he probably has in mind a few weeks. For our purposes, we shall use “wait” in the sense with which geologists are familiar. Oscar and I waited.

Oscar struggles diligently to free his fork from the sausage.

.: A family sat down at a nearby table a good twenty minutes into our wait, and their food arrived before Oscar’s (this was a common theme throughout the entire trip). While my hypothesis must forever remain speculation, I suspect the blame for the long wait can be assigned to the complicated nature of the dish. Not only did the chef have to squeeze all the flavor and juices from the sausages, he also had to delicately arrange them in a bed of mash potatoes. That, at least, would account for the first half hour. He must have spent the remaining twenty minutes meticulously applying the gravy Oscar specifically did not request.

.: To call the meal “food” would devalue the word of meaning. Oscar’s plate overflowed with stuff utterly inedible to everything except certain species of archaebacteria. The knife and fork team proved wholly inadequate, and his teeth went on strike after a few strenuous bites. I still have thoughts of the Chicken Kiev and cringe at what could’ve been.

.: Still hungry, we wandered into a place called Garfunkel’s. A nice lady at the front door led us to our booth and handed us menus. A few seconds later she returned, ready to take our drink order. “Tap water?” she repeated after me. I nodded. “Would you like ice with that?” We only got dessert, and it was overpriced, but fewer times have I appreciated the existence (if not necessarily the quality) of warm apple pie nestled next to a scoop of vanilla ice cream. We left her nice tip.

Next: A trip to Oxford, another famous house, and a depressing city
Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four | Part Five | Part Six

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2 Responses to “Part Six”

  1. josh says:

    That pint isn’t guiness, it’s bitter. They’re a bit hit and miss. Guiness is the black stuff with white foam. Incidentally, most brits have perfected their mesma-stare for attracting bar staff at about 17. It’s a necessary trick over here.

  2. Oscar says:

    I just did a little search on google and it turns out tea means T.E.A. or Traditional English Ale.

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