Monday, July 09, 2007

Canteen cock-ups

Perhaps it was a sign when the waitress started telling us what a bad day she'd been having. If anything tells you that you might need protective clothing and pyjamas while you wait for your meal, it's going to be disgruntled staff.

And does Canteen ever have disgruntled staff. Disgruntled, rude, slow, incompetent, indifferent, in a world of their own. It is quite possible to sit at a table in Canteen, the refurbished restaurant at the rear of the Royal Festival Hall, until you are old without being noticed. I came out with several grey hairs (tho' worryingly I went in with them too).

We went in for dessert after seeing Sweeney Todd in the RFH and it was a marathon of making eye contact with the waiters just to get one to come over. While waiting for the puddings, I was quite happy to chat and observe the quiet chaos unfolding around the low grey leather-pale wood booths, but once fifteen minutes had passed and our desserts had flown past us twice (exposing the true value of their electronic ordering pads), patience wore thin.

The chocolate caramel sundae melded chewy brownies with soft, almost yoghurty ice cream, and a tall, crisp biscotto gave a good contrast. Similarly balanced was the gingerbread with stewed rhubarb and ice cream, where the gingerbread (emphasis for texture on the 'bread') hit the sweet notes the rhubarb did not. More than three chunks of rhubarb would have been appreciated.

We had ordered glasses of water with dessert but they failed to appear by the time the bowls had been (metaphorically) licked clean, so we asked another waiter for them (again after finding one who would look at us). When they eventually turned up, the waiter managed to knock a bottle of beer off his tray and all over our table, including my programme.

He neither apologised nor made any effort to clean up the beer as my friend and I frantically mopped it up with napkins, but the highlight came when he picked up the bottle, observed its semi-full frothy state and asked us if we'd like it. The rest of someone else's bottle of beer that he'd just spilled over us.

As we gaped in outraged bemusement, he stood there blank-faced and the beer continued to drip onto the floor. Suffice it to say, dessert was free that night.

It seems that being a waiter uses certain skills and traits anyone has: if you make a mistake, you apologise; if you spill something, you clean it up. Quite how Canteen managed to find people who not only can't wait but can't even act like normal people is beyond me.

I returned on Sunday, just to see if it had been a one-off or whether incompetence is institutional. Sadly, after waiting half an hour on a slow lunchtime for cheese (cheese! Just slice it and put it on the plate!), it seems institutional. I can understand that a new restaurant has teething problems, but both times I have been it was not madly busy and the staff seemed unable to cope with their duties. Perhaps Canteen has a policy of only taking on novices. If so, a rethink is needed.

The problem is that the food is delicious and reasonably priced, sourced locally and simply prepared. This might not seem a problem, but if you have to suffer their service each time you go, the dilemma is clear.

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