My piece on the Portofino restaurant in Rarotonga produced a lot of comment from both locals and tourists. The general theme was that the pizzas were indeed dreadful, but most of those who approached Judy or me spoke highly of the rest of the menu. The fact of the matter is that we’d have been less annoyed – and I would probably never have written the blog – if Nancy had accepted that maybe it wasn’t a great pizza, had apologised or made some attempt to put things right. But she did none of these. So in the end our complaint wasn’t really about the food, it was about one aspect of the service. For a year or so Judy and I were restaurant reviewers for the Waiheke Week. We ate at restaurants both on the island and in the city and our judgments appeared in this excellent but, I understand, now defunct publication. What follows is an updated version of our final review:
Are You Being Served?
The most surprising thing about our reviewing career was that we didn’t have a really bad meal anywhere. On reflection perhaps it isn’t so surprising after all. As New Zealanders have become more discerning about food and wine over the last couple of decades, restaurants that hope to survive have had to meet customers’ new expectations. Travel widely and you quickly discover that the standard of cuisine in New Zealand eateries is as high as, or higher than that of most other developed countries. We’re certainly on a par with the Aussies and the Yanks. And if you want to experience truly awful food, almost any UK restaurant, hotel or pub will be happy to oblige. The Brits (and sadly the Irish) can’t cook. This is not to say that there are no awful, sometimes high-priced restaurants in Godzone. There are. We’re currently compiling a little black book of “Triple C” restaurants (Chef Can’t Cook) some of which will one day feature on this site. But, for the most part, it’s hard to find truly terrible tucker in Aotearoa.
So everything in the garden’s rosy then?
Well, no. What it’s very easy to find is truly terrible service. My son Ollie, who is a top Wellington restaurateur and chef, often says that a restaurant with indifferent food may survive, but a restaurant with really poor service will not. The reason is simple. Going to a restaurant isn’t just about eating good food. Most of us can do that at home, and considerably more cheaply. It’s about enjoying an experience. Making up that experience are a number of elements: agreeable surroundings, pleasant company, good food and wine, and the sense of being looked after, spoiled a little by attentive hosts. Though more formal in nature, good restaurant service is about treating diners as you would treat lunch or dinner guests in your own home. You’d welcome them when they arrived. You’d take their coats and offer them a drink. You’d make sure they had somewhere comfortable to sit and that the room was neither unreasonably cold nor unreasonably hot. You wouldn’t keep them waiting an eternity before serving the meal. You’d take care that there was water on the table when they sat down to dinner. If there were several courses, you’d try to serve them at reasonable intervals, allowing time for conversation and digestion, but not letting your guests starve or get pissed as newts after a 45-minute delay between entrée and main. You’d keep an eye on the wine, topping up people’s glasses as required. You’d quickly remove dirty plates and cutlery from the table at the end of each course.
If there was something in the meal that a guest couldn’t eat, you’d try to replace it with something else. If disaster happened and the soup was cold or the chicken undercooked, you’d apologise and do your best to remedy the fault. You might not actually ask whether your guests had enjoyed the meal (not the done thing), but you’d certainly be reading their faces for clues. (Maybe not garlic tripe next time!) You wouldn’t disappear for 20 minutes to talk to a friend on the phone. And you wouldn’t play the stereo so loud that your guests couldn’t hear themselves think. In a nutshell, you’d be attentive to their needs, comfort and enjoyment at all times. And, it goes without saying, you would be pleasant. This is the sort of service you should expect in any decent restaurant. This, as much as the food, is what you’re paying for. The food alone won’t do it. Good food and bad service add up to a bad dining experience. Yet bad service, service that is the opposite of all the things we’ve just described, was and still is commonplace throughout New Zealand. Fortunately, bad service is relatively easy to fix. Given a couple of hours, we could have sorted out all the bad service we reported in our reviews for the Waiheke Week with a little basic staff training.
As it turned out, the restaurants with the worst service were uninterested in improving anything. Two, including one of the most upmarket and expensive, let it be known that we were banned for life. They could have learned a lot from the Waiheke RSA’s Cookhouse, where we had a wonderful meal for ten bucks a head, only slightly marred by some lukewarm chips and not very palatable instant coffee. Banned? On the contrary, the management wrote to the Week, thanking us for our review and promising to sort out the lukewarm chips and install a proper coffee-making machine.