Waiter: “Would you like this octopus dish?”
Me: “No thanks, we’ve already had it. And it was very good.”
Waiter: “Would you like another?”
Me: “Not really.”
Waiter: “It’s on the house.”
Me: “Yes please.”
This interchange took place during the early stages of lunch at the hot new Catalan-inspired restaurant Rambla that landed in Soho recently and as such cemented it in my mind as a cool place to eat. The food was absolutely terrific (it received the only five star review of the year from the Evening Standard’s critic Fay Maschler) – with a combination of a light touch with the core ingredients and fastidious effort with some of the accompanying sauces and additional components.
But what made it special for me was the easygoing style of the place as delivered by the Spanish/Catalan team – both from the serving side and with the chefs behind the bar counter where we sat. This enabled an ongoing conversation with them as our meal was served.
The lunch came to a close with the following exchange.
Me: “What cheeses are on your cheese course?”
Waiter: “No idea what they are called. I can’t remember all those names. I can tell you what types they are such as a goat’s cheese, but not the names.”
This definitely sealed the Spanish style of service for me. There is a full recognition and respect for the food but it is not upended by any off-putting stuffiness. It could be that it is now fighting for pole position in my affections with the service typically delivered by Italians in quality restaurants. They manage to tread that extremely fine line between casual chattiness and being overly familiar. They will take part in a friendly exchange but then know when to cut it at just the right time.
Locanda Locatelli is a favourite with my family especially my daughter whom I took for lunch as a celebration when she started school. It came down to the desserts and the waiter asked her if she would like to visit the kitchen and select from the ice creams. She jumped at this friendly gesture although I did wonder whether it was a good idea as I saw her being led away. It did rather go against the rule you tell children of never going with strange men when they offer you sweets or ice cream.
That aside, the Italian style of service – particularly with their welcoming attitude to children in even the smartest of venues – has always been the ideal way in which I like to be treated when dining out.
This easygoing style has become increasingly relevant as the eating out customer has supposedly fallen out of love with fine dining. The response to this has been the removal of linen table cloths, some simplification of the dishes (that also possibly juices the margins), and the employment of people sporting visible tattoos, as well as nose rings too if the restaurant really wants to push the boat out on lightening the mood.
This all somewhat misses the point because what really makes the key difference is adopting a style of service that goes out of its way to make everybody feel comfortable and welcome. The inclusivity delivered by Italian restaurants (and Spanish I now know) is what other cuisines should be aiming for in my opinion.
Yes, I agree that it is not as simple as simply stating that Italians and Spanish deliver one broad type of service and the French deliver another but without wishing to upset the French nation I suspect we all know which of the styles that we’d likely plump for – if only on the basis of stereotypical reputation rather than actual reality.
What’s rather worrying me is that I’ve been discussing service in terms of various EU nationalities and not even gone near Britons. The reality is that I don’t think I get served by the natives enough to be able to actually describe what British service feels like. What we can be sure about is that Brexit will put the cat among the pigeons and I’ll probably soon be experiencing exactly what it is. I can’t help but feel that it – and I hope I’m wrong – won’t be quite like the experience I enjoyed so much at Rambla.