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.
Haz Restaurant St. Paul’s
34 Foster Lane, London, EC2V 6HD
Phone: 020 7600 4172 / 020 7600 4173
Price per person: £15
The verdict: Meh