Kingsley Amis famously said that the three most depressing words in the English language are “red or white?” For anyone who has been to a second-rate book launch or a provincial gallery opening there must be a degree of sympathy. What, after all, is more disheartening than the choice between a warm glass of supermarket Sauvignon Blanc or a beakerful of corner shop Merlot? When I was a student, I didn’t know any better and would happily buy whatever plonk was cheapest at the local petrol station (“garage grog” as it later became known) but Kingsley Amis’s appreciation of good wine only exaggerated the ignominy of having to slum it at bad parties.
For me, however, the three most depressing words in the English language are “Is everything OK?” The context, in case you were wondering, is restaurants, and as someone who eats out two or three times a week (an occupational necessity, but I’m not complaining) when I am asked, “is everything OK?” by a waiter, it often has me spluttering into my soup.
On the surface, my reaction might seem counterintuitive. Isn’t it good that restaurant staff check back to make sure that the customer is content? Well, yes and no. Ensuring the punter is happy is one thing, but asking for a qualitative response is quite another.
I was having lunch at a new restaurant recently. The place looked great, beautiful design, clever lighting, tasty food and a buzzy atmosphere. The waiters were very pleasant, too. But the interruptions! Oh my god, the interruptions. The starter barely had time to acquaint itself with the table when an aproned fellow approached and asked me how it was. “It looks good,” I said, “I’m sure it’s going to taste fine.” When a different chap cleared the empty plate, he asked, “Did you enjoy your starter?” Although the timing was better with the main course I still had to field questions, namely “Is everything OK?” and “Do you like your skate wing?” The first was from a waitress I hadn’t seen before, the second from the maître d’ who had greeted me on the way in. (As annoying and as frustrating as this was, I have to say that Michelin-starred restaurants with famous chefs are far worse. “The chef recommends that you eat the chilled pea consommé first, the broad bean mousse second, and the mint gelée last.” But these joints are in the Premier League of interruptions and pointless interjections. Most places I go to have mere Championship League status and practice just the classic “Is everything OK?”)
Of course, the other problem I have with staff asking if everything is “OK” is that it suggests that “OK” is what the restaurant is aiming for, that this is the best we can expect, that the highest culinary achievement is for the food to be mediocre.
So what should waiters be saying when they perform that all-important check back on the table? It’s easy:
“Do you have everything you need?”
This gives the diner an opportunity to mention if something is wrong, point out an error, order another drink and offer a compliment if one is warranted. No awkwardness and no qualitative feedback required. And this should only happen once during each course, by the way.
Finally, here’s one of my favourite restaurant gags, taken from The Ultimate Book of Jewish Jokes by David Minkoff:
Q: What did the waiter ask the group of Jewish mothers?
A: “Is anything OK?”