In her first column for Hospitality, Elizabeth Meryment lists the one trend that restaurateurs need to dodge in 2017.
A few months back, I noticed a social media comment that summed up many of my experiences as a diner over the past year or so.
"Bizarre meal at (name of restaurant, which I won't name here)," it read. "Technically lovely food and views let down by utterly bored indifferent floor staff."
The post intrigued me, and I replied to the commentator that I found much Australian service followed that pattern. His response: "(But) this was at a new level. When we asked what the oysters were in our mixed 12 a guy handed us the chit from the kitchen."
As this public discussion progressed, the owner of this highly regarded Sydney waterfront venue (that specialises in seafood) joined the conversation with the meek observation: "At least they didn't guess".
I'm not entirely sure that wouldn't have been better.
A check of the menu at this veritable establishment reveals the oysters sell for between $4.20 and $6 a pop, meaning the diner would have been up for at least $50 on the mixed dozen.
And while most educated patrons appreciate that good produce handled well does not a cheap meal make, those same diners would have a reasonable expectation that built into such costs are the professionalism of staff. Apparently not always.
Of all the dining trends I've noticed over the past year, the decline in service standards – even in upmarket venues – is the most profound. Not only is it apparent that many floor staff lack expertise, they are often so young and blithe it's obvious they have never patronised the sorts of venues in which they work. As a diner you want your server to know more than you, not less.
The crisis in Australian service is, it's true, not simply a fault of restaurateurs failing to adequately train and retain their staff, but a result of several economic and social forces. A 38,000 nationwide shortfall in the number of hospitality workers required to fuel a booming dining sector is the main problem, but a contributing factor is the attitude that waiting is not a career but a job to have between jobs. Career waiter? The term does not exist in this country.
This is lamentable, for informed diners increasingly feel brilliant service is the factor that gives any venue the edge over its competitors. Sure, customers visit restaurants for the food. But most Australian chefs at a certain level know how to plate up good food. Rather, it is the experience of dining, with the pleasures of being greeted kindly, seated well, informed about a menu and wine list and served at a pace appropriate for the mood, that encourages you to leave the comfort of home with your credit card loaded. Those pleasures can often be attributed to skilled waiters, people who should be as celebrated as much the chef on the pass.
Thankfully, there are some who are finely practiced in the art of hospitality. In Sydney, the Bentley group’s Nick Hildebrandt is a master at running a floor, and I would dine at the Italian classic Lucio’s if only to be served with the grace of owner Lucio Galletto.
The team behind the Porteno and Bodega restaurants, meanwhile, take service to the next level. Here you’ll find staff not only beautifully groomed and wonderfully informed but who take genuine pride in their work. They welcome you into their world with an ease that makes you glad you came.
Interestingly, the social media pundit who made the observation about the “utterly bored indifferent” service was not affronted by the cost of the oysters, their taste or presentation. Rather it was terrible service that left a bad taste in his mouth. Enough said.
Elizabeth Meryment was a Daily and Sunday Telegraph food critic for eight years.