Haz – St. Paul’s

I read an article that claimed the majority of people make their decision to return to a restaurant based upon service, rather than food. As with all generalizations, one can always think of exceptions – I’ve returned to restaurants where the service has been pretty flaky; indeed, sometimes slightly inept service can even be charming. In the United States, of course, there is a tacit understanding: good service is rewarded with a good tip. Actually, having worked in the restaurant industry myself, my rule is slightly different. Always tip well, and when the service is good, tip exceptionally well.

In the UK, things are a little different. The majority of restaurants automatically tack a “discretionary service charge” onto your bill. While some restaurants in fact give this money to their servers, many do not. Instead, the house pockets the entire service charge, so it functions essentially as a 12.5% surcharge on your meal. The thing that I’ve learned to do is ask, when I get the bill, whether the servers get the service charge. If they do not, I ask for the service charge to be removed, so I can leave a cash tip. The resistance one encounters to this seemingly simple request is remarkable. On one memorable occasion, the frightened server refused to take off the service charge, on the grounds that the restaurant management would “find out” and she’d get in trouble. On another occasion, a server pointed out that the word “discretionary” did not precede “service charge” on the bill. In other words, the restaurant pocketed the service charge, and there was not a goddamn thing she, or we, could do about it.

Which brings me to Haz Restaurant St. Paul’s, in the City of London (non-Londoners, this is the financial district). One of a chain of four Turkish restaurants, Haz St. Paul’s is a large, plate-glass-fronted, impersonal, noisy oblong, with high ceilings, glossy dark wood furnishings, and incongruous outsized chandeliers hanging over the bar. They do a brisk lunch business for City traders and bankers. Yesterday I met several food bloggers and cooks there as part of a series of informal weekday lunches. At one time, the restaurant apparently was quite good. Our food, however, was pretty uniformly mediocre; it tasted, and looked, mass-produced for diners in a hurry who don’t really give a toss what they’re eating. The bread brought at the start of the meal was cold and tough. My Tavuk Shish (grilled boneless chicken on a skewer, $8.95) was dry, with the leathery exterior that comes from being cooked in advance and kept under a warmer until service. This was served with underseasoned sautéed vegetables and a mound of what tasted like instant rice. Friend M’s plate featured several grayish lumps of aubergine arranged unattractively on the same unappetizing rice. When friend W inspected the underside of his (overcooked) grilled salmon, it was seared black. And so on.

The bill, for five of us, came to approximately £72. This figure included a 12.5% discretionary service charge. At this point, I was feeling rather ornery; the food was sub-par, and friend U had had to wait ten minutes, and ask three times, for milk with her tea. When we received the bill I asked whether the servers received the service charge. No, we were told. It all went to the restaurant. I asked what happened if we removed the service charge and left cash, and the server told us the tip would go “in the jar” to be divided among the servers. Fine. I asked for the service charge to be removed.

Our server brought the bill to the front desk and spoke with the maitre d’. When she returned she informed us that we should pay the whole bill, and the servers would get the tip. This seemed rather odd to us, given her previous report. When I asked, several times, if the service charge could simply be taken off the bill, and explained that we’d rather leave a cash tip (the service charge was, after all, “discretionary”), she held her ground. Consternation. She retreated, and we regrouped.

Eventually she returned and said, “you’d really rather we took the service charge off the bill.” “Yes,” we said. The service charge was finally removed, and we tipped in cash. I won’t go back to a Haz restaurant if I can help it. However, I devoutly hope that there is in fact a “jar,” and that our servers were tipped for their service.

The Upshot

Haz Restaurant St. Paul’s

34 Foster Lane, London, EC2V 6HD

Website: http://www.hazrestaurant.co.uk/haz_st_pauls.htm

Phone: 020 7600 4172 / 020 7600 4173

Price per person: £15

The verdict: Meh

Haz on Urbanspoon

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10 thoughts on “Haz – St. Paul’s

  1. Bravo for alerting me to my assumption that the “service charge” actually rewarded servers. As a former waitperson I tend to tip generously as well, but now I may ask before acceding to a standard charge. Thanks!

    • To be fair, I can’t speak to practices in the US; I think that most places that add the service charge are legally obligated to give it to their servers. Since writing this post, I’ve gotten some additional intelligence; specifically, supposedly VAT (tax) is not imposed on funds collected as “service charge.” So it’s a way for the restaurants to reduce the upfront costs seen by the customers (thereby improving both their competitiveness and their profit margin). The restaurant wins, and both the servers and the customers lose. Shameful.

  2. I believe that restaurants were (and maybe still are) allowed to use tips collected via the “discretionary” service charge to count towards the minimum wage. Which is a frankly shocking state of affairs. As a former waiter, bar tender and buss boy (and kitchen hand, bar-back, dogsbody…) I always try to ascertain who gets the tips.

    I’m really sorry not to have been able to come out and see you all, I’m not sorry to have missed Haz.

  3. Good for you for sticking to your guns. I was unaware of the service charge tacked on as well. I just do the American thing and overtip because I figure that someone should be compensated for having to deal with me ;-)

    However, it does make me a little steamed to think that the people being compensated are NOT the staff members! That is just shocking. I hope there is a jar too!

  4. In the US we are expected to tip because most servers don’t make a living wage and the tips are expected to cover the difference. Additionally, in the US server tips are protected. I think if the house even looks at the tips, it breaks like 10 different laws. As a former server myself I think I would have some difficulty dealing with other “tip cultures” while traveling. If I’m ever in the UK I will keep this information in mind.

    However, do you have an idea of whether the servers are well compensated or not (before tips)? I know one of the other commenters mentioned that the house is allowed to use the money toward min. wage, but I suppose I’m curious as to what min. wage is?

  5. Had the same experience but potentially worse at another of their branches. It is bad management enforcing tips (hence I argued the ‘discretionary’ element). In the end the manager took off the tip but said I was a disgrace to his staff (btw I left a tip despite everything but about £1 short of the full 12.5%). On further returns to other branches I learnt that their measly wages are made up from the tips! Unreal.

  6. i live and work in London, and as a rule, unless there are extenuating circumstances, i ask for the service charge to be removed. at that point i decide whether to tip or not; and if i decide to tip my usual practice is to tip below 10% and in cash.

    this is not being mean, for three reasons:

    1. restaurants get away with charging absurdly high prices in London.
    2. service in the UK – with rare exception is bad – and by either adding on a service charge or expecting a tip acts as a disincentive to provide a good service
    3. restaurant staff in the UK must by law be paid the minimum wage. i appreciate this is not high and staff would like more – hell, id like to be paid more, i am sure we all would.

    when I am in the states for example then i will pay around 20%: their wage structure is different and frankly the service far better.

    the bottom line is if restaurant staff want to be given a tip in London then they should expect to provide a service worthy of receiving a tip.

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