Eating with kids, allergies, no shows - as we dine out more and more, Joe McNamee asks the experts and compiles the new rules for eating out.
We had Michelin starred restaurants as far back as 1974 —at one stage, three in Co Cork alone — but it took the advent of the Celtic Tiger to see us embrace dining out en masse and it gradually became obvious we were more comfortable with casual dining, shorn of starched linen and silver service; since the recession, that has become even more pronounced.
So, how are modern diners supposed to behave, what is the current dining etiquette? Where once we were expected to know which fork was for ‘dinner’, which for dessert and which for poking the baby’s eye, do we now even bother with forks?
Where once we cowered under the withering condescension of the black tie waiting brigade, do we now fetch up in a lime green thong and greet them with a hug? With some restaurants even serving drinks in recycled jam jars, are there any rules left at all?
The playing field may have altered but the game, essentially, remains the same. To provide you with guidelines, we are joined by two of Ireland’s finest restaurant managers/maître d’s, John Healy (TV3’s The Restaurant, Suesy Street restaurant) and Declan Maxwell (formerly of Chapter One, now Luna), and by Gearóid Lynch, chef/proprietor of The Olde Post Inn, in Cavan, who, since being diagnosed as coeliac five years ago, has become an advocate for gluten-free cooking.
It pays to be straight up and as clear and informative as possible when booking, especially if for a large group. Now is the time to give details of any food allergies, intolerances or preferences; most good chefs, if forewarned, will welcome the challenge of adapting a dish.
JOHN HEALY: We have a questionnaire to be gone through when a booking comes in, especially for large parties. We take a credit card number and take a deposit. We send out a menu with terms and conditions for the party. If it gets out of hand, then you need to be able to shut it down or whatever you have to do.
On more than a few occasions I have actually overheard women discussing plans for communion/confirmation celebrations and how they had made bookings for large parties at multiple restaurants, intending to settle on one at the last minute, never for a second pausing to consider the impact of their no-shows.
DECLAN MAXWELL: When we book flights, a hotel, the theatre, we give our credit card details but Irish people have a huge issue with doing it when booking a table. Here in Luna, we do online booking, it is becoming huge, 70% of our bookings, and you have to give a credit card no matter how many they are booking for.
JOHN HEALY: We use Open Table [online booking system] which prevents multiple bookings. Diners email if they need to cancel and we ring on the day to confirm. That might be annoying but that’s what we have to do. There is a deposit charged for all large tables and everyone is charged a deposit on Christmas Eve.
As the parent of an anaphylactic child who carries epi-pens for a peanut allergy and as uncle to a coeliac nephew, I am hyper-vigilant when dining with either and it is also the reason I find the fakers so upsetting.
DECLAN MAXWELL: I think most people are getting better at saying it when they are making a booking and chefs have no problem doing something but if you turn up at 8.30pm on a Saturday night expecting the chefs to turn out something different, then that’s kind of taking the mick.
We had a couple here one night. The woman said she was highly allergic to fish. My staff are trained to call me when they hear ‘highly allergic’. I went over. Not only did she not have an epi-pen but had never heard of one or of the word, ‘anaphylactic’.
Anyway, we sorted out her food but afterwards her husband called me over and said, ‘how dare you speak to my wife like that!’ I told him that I have to be very careful when I hear those words; all she had to say was she didn’t like fish. But he was having none of it.
JOHN HEALY: It’s out of control but you have to suck it up because real allergies can’t be taken lightly, they can be very serious. You can normally tell on a table when someone is genuine or not. I will ask, is this a serious allergy or a dietary thing. I’d still recommend certain dishes for their ‘condition’ but if they are genuine, I will take it very seriously. It has become extreme and it will backfire some day and the person who will suffer is someone with a serious allergy. At the same time, they are customers and it is a fact of modern life, many people are changing the way they eat — vegans, paleo, gluten-free etc — and restaurants have to get with it.
CORKAGE AND CAKEAGE
‘Corkage’ is a charge levied on a customer who wishes to bring their own bottle of wine for consumption with their meal; ‘cakeage’ is the equivalent charge for bringing along your own cake.
DECLAN MAXWELL: We don’t do corkage, full stop. As for cakes, we allow them but will only serve it after dessert as, with a large party of ten, say, we will possibly lose out on ten desserts. It is very Irish to say, ah, we’ll skip dessert and have our own cake. We also ask them to inform everyone that we did not make this cake, in case anyone gets sick.
JOHN HEALY: We don’t even allow someone bring champers for a wedding meal. If it ever was to happen I’d charge them a minimum of the price of our house wine. The margins on food are so tight that most of the profit is on the alcohol so why would I allow someone to take that margin. If you want to do that, stay at home and get someone to cook it for you.
As a professional restaurant reviewer who is also primary carer of my two youngest children, they end up dining out with me more than I ever did with my own parents and have been doing so since infancy, so I know well how difficult it can be to get a child to behave in a restaurant. But, it can and, more importantly, should be done. Neither does that always mean ‘plugging’ them into their devices. After all, family meals should be a chance to experience the shared joy of communal eating.
DM: I find the gadgets are a bit of a bone of contention. My mates with kids tell me it can be a lifesaver but if the volume is up, the table beside is being disturbed. Turn it down so that only the kid can hear it.
JOHN HEALY: As a rule, we don’t allow children after 7.30, end of. I would expect kids to behave when they are in here. If it is a party or a communion with kids, I normally tell people to bring entertainment. If they are disturbing other tables, I will ask them to control them or even leave.
Restaurant staff are neither sex objects or slaves so, keeping that in mind, treat them accordingly.
DECLAN MAXWELL: A corporate group might want to be left alone to talk business but other tables might want the conversation and the craic and it is up to the staff to be able to read the tables. In general, I think Irish people prefer an interaction — a restaurant in Paris can be like being served by robots.
JOHN HEALY: It is a very hard job and, to survive, staff need to be trained properly, to be courteous, knowledgeable and well-presented. If they are not all of the above and have an attitude — as a customer, I would be very upset. The majority of diners treat them well but some seem to think staff are an object of desire, a slave or a mere servant for their needs and whims, and I won’t tolerate that. Treat them as you would any human being.
Anything on your phone will never be superior to the joy of breaking bread with your fellows, a social practice as old as cooking itself.
DECLAN MAXWELL: It is a big one. I’d put my hands up, I’m a bit of a culprit myself. I’m a fecker for using it but I’d leave the restaurant. Some people make the argument that it’s the same as talking to people at the table but you speak a lot louder on the phone. Never put it on the table. When you’re trying to serve, they take up room but you can get funny looks when you ask them to move them. Taking pictures? Well, Instagram is really good for the industry and a pic only takes a couple of seconds. I don’t think it’s bad but if they take ages and their food goes cold, that’s their own fault and not the restaurant’s.
JOHN HEALY: If a mobile is ringing incessantly, I’d ask someone to turn it off. If they are talking loudly, I’d escort them to an area where they can talk without disturbing others. If taking photos is disturbing others, I’d ask them to stop. I get my photo taken every night [with diners who recognise him from the TV] but I take them away to an area where they won’t disturb anyone else.
The reason Tripadvisor (which I find utterly repulsive) is so perfect for the Irish market, is it fuels one particular and less than appealing national trait, saying one thing to your face and another behind your back, in this case, allowing often self-anointed food critics without the actual expertise to tell you all was wonderful yet then trash you later online.
DECLAN MAXWELL: The big problem can be alcohol.
With people complaining in Brown Thomas at four in the afternoon, it’s normally a lot clearer, but when it’s 10.30 at night, after two G&Ts and a few glasses of wine, it can become a lot less clearer and can go off the wall.
As for Tripadvisor — a lot of people are keyboard warriors and it drives me mental because I want to know what is wrong when they are here so I can do something about it. If you look online, a lot of complaints are posted at 1am in the morning, when they’ve got home and also might have had the few drinks.
I want them to leave here happy but we Irish are still not good at doing complaining to the face. If someone is complaining to my face and they start swearing at me, I walk away. It’s a service industry, not a servile industry.
JOHN HEALY: If your food is overcooked, undercooked, too hot or too cold, I’d bring it back to the kitchen, that is easy to fix. You have the right to complain but people who work in restaurants know whether a complaint is genuine.
If you are to tell me it is shit, I want to know why it is shit. When you have people who don’t know the portion is so small because the particular ingredients are so expensive, that’s when I have a problem. With complaints, on both sides, there has to be understanding and empathy. Customers are paying for food, and it is very easy for us to change a dish but not liking something doesn’t give me any reason why I should take it off the bill.
Gearóid Lynch, chef/proprietor of The Olde Post Inn, in Cavan, was diagnosed as a coeliac just five years ago, pretty tough news for a professional chef but his response was utterly positive, embarking on a campaign to educate the public, including his first book, My Gluten Free Kitchen: “I was diagnosed in my mid-thirties, it probably should have been picked up on when I was a child, I was in twice for surgery for appendix but it wasn’t that. There are 60 different types of coeliac with all sorts of different symptoms. I also run a private cookery school and we had a couple from Dublin and he was diagnosed in his 50s, after seeing five different specialists in Ireland and the UK. His symptoms are forgetfulness and pains in his feet. I wouldn’t have believed it only for he was a GP. My last episode was last year. We were in a place that had gluten-free chicken wings. By the time I was nearly finished, I was terrible unwell. I had to get to the bathroom fast and was in there for the guts of an hour. My wife had to get the kids into the car and get us home, I was terribly weak, I went to bed at seven and was asleep until the following day. They’d probably dusted them in flour before frying, you have to be so careful, even when someone says it is a GF dish.
I had to change my lifestyle after I was diagnosed. Up to five years ago, I was bloated and couldn’t do a single length of the pool and now I do triathlons and up to 90 or 100 lengths on Tuesday. The Brownlee brothers, Jonny and Alistair Brownlee, are famous UK triathletes and, as far as I am aware, they took 12 minutes off their times after going on a GF diet so you have a lot of other athletes now looking at that. Some people decide to go on it for a lifestyle change and that really annoys restaurants or you have people saying they are intolerant or coeliac, the chef goes to a big effort to make something and then they eat the brown bread.”