I accept that most of this isn’t deliberate. By definition, a single diner will probably want to get through his meal more quickly than a group engaged in conversation, and also may be more easily overlooked. But I can’t help feeling that there is a touch of resentment that they don’t fit the desired customer profile, and a middle-aged bloke isn’t going to look so good to potential customers as a foxy single business lady.
The process of going through the steps of ordering and being served with food in a restaurant should be straightforward and predictable. A server should be aware of the tables they’re allocated to, and regularly check how the occupants are getting on. When they’ve obviously finished one stage, they should be fairly promptly invited to move on to the next. The aim of service should be to speak to the customer before they’ve even started to think about where the waiter has got to.
If you’re on the ball, you should be able to get a single diner eating a two-course meal through the entire process in an hour, provided that the main course can be cooked in 15-20 minutes. An hour and a quarter isn’t too bad, but anything more suggests you’re not really paying attention. Yet recently, in a place that wasn’t anywhere near packed, it took me an hour and fifty minutes. Fortunately I had brought some reading matter along with me. It certainly isn’t a phenomenon confined to busy restaurants. While some customers may be happy with spending most of the afternoon or evening in a restaurant, others will have trains to catch, or meetings or shows to attend.
Obviously the primary responsibility has to lie with management, for failing to recruit and train staff properly and make sure they are keeping their eyes open. However, it can’t be denied that some staff come across as lackadaisical, disengaged and unobservant, and almost seem to resent actually being asked to do anything. If I was doing a job, however mundane, I’d make an effort to do it as well as I could, but evidently this isn’t a universal sentiment. In fact, it could be argued that it’s easier to do a job properly than to deliberately slack.
Even after you’ve actually eaten your food, there are still the multiple hurdles of getting and paying the bill to negotiate. This requires three separate interactions with the staff – asking for it, receiving it (after which they invariably walk away) and then actually proferring your preferred means of payment and having it processed. If you need change, there’s a fourth step to add on. At least now they will bring a card terminal to the table rather than vanishing into the back with it. On several occasions, I’ve felt that I’ve got through a meal in decent time only to have to wait a further half an hour before I’ve actually paid for it.
All these things also apply to parties of diners, but they do seem to be notably worse for solo customers. It’s all very well to say that you should attract the attention of a passing waiter, but having to do that always seems a touch ill-mannered and a last resort, and you need to have one to hail in the first place.
This problem is avoided in most pubs by operating a system of ordering at the bar and paying at the same time. This means you can leave more quickly once you have finished your meal, although it may make it more difficult to have problems rectified. Some casual dining restaurants such as Gourmet Burger Kitchen and Nando’s operate a similar system with the exception of bar service for drinks. It also doesn’t occur in buffet restaurants where you pay a single price upfront. If you want a reasonably quick meal it may make sense to choose one of these places.
And, while it may seem a bit ill-mannered and brutal, surely there’s a case for restaurants having service bells in the same way as pubs operating waiter service used to.