Magazine

The restaurants that thrive on insulting their diners

  • 7 March 2014
  • From the section Magazine
Fawlty Towers Hotel Inspectors episode

A Chinese eatery dubbed "London's rudest restaurant" has promised to reopen with better-mannered service. Can insulting your customers ever be a successful business strategy?

Cash only! No, you can't sit together. Eat faster! Ha ha, you want a knife and fork?

Wong Kei in London's Chinatown defied received gastronomic wisdom that the customer was always right.

Its patrons were cajoled, bullied, insulted and mocked by waiting staff. Perversely, many diners loved it. Each night scores would queue up at the 500-cover restaurant to be verbally abused over the chicken satay and pork fried noodles.

To its fans, it was a refreshingly abrasive anomaly in an increasingly sanitised service industry. But this notoriety has been consigned to the past. Wong Kei's operators have pledged to adopt a new, politer waiting style after a revamp of the premises.

Maylee McDowell (second left) wants her waiters to be nicer to customers

Co-manager Maylee McDowell admits that her staff could be "quite nasty" in the past. "But we're trying to change the image to be better - good food, good service," she says. This is contingent on customers falling into line. "Hopefully they won't mess us up and then we won't mess them up."

Some old regulars who revelled in the old regime's carnivalesque atmosphere have reacted with dismay. "Here, bad service is 'de rigueur'," says one fan on the restaurant's TripAdvisor page. "When we get a friendly waiter, it's disappointing."

For some, there is a masochistic pleasure in allowing serving staff full licence to order them about.

And while Basil Fawlty at his most splenetic may appear an odd role model, a select band of hospitality entrepreneurs have built successful careers on a reputation for being cantankerous and abrasive to their clientele.

Celebrity chef Marco Pierre White once boasted of throwing out 54 customers in a single night and ejecting diners who asked for salt and pepper. The reputation of Michelin-starred Dublin chef Kevin Thornton was burnished after reports he verbally abused a man who asked for chips with his meal.

Bookings at the Adelphi in Liverpool rose by 20% after a BBC reality series was screened featuring rather forthright staff. The owner of a Cumbria tearoom which attracted online criticism for its grumpy service won praise after hitting back that the north of England was "a place that still maintains a healthy respect for a good old fashioned surly disposition".

Perhaps the venue most famous for insulting its customers was the Coach and Horses, the Soho pub whose former barman Norman Balon had matchbooks printed declaring him "London's Rudest Landlord".

His broadsides at drinkers - "You're so ugly you're upsetting the customers", "The beer is meant to be cloudy - I suggest you go elsewhere", and "You're too boring to be in my pub" - were celebrated by regulars such as journalist Jeffrey Bernard, painter Francis Bacon and the staff of Private Eye.

Balon's insults were regarded as a form of performance art, and made the Coach and Horses a keenly sought-out destination until he retired in 2006. Russell Norman, star of BBC Two's The Restaurant Man, recalls visiting regularly "because there was entertainment to be had in annoying the landlord". Likewise, he would pop into Wong Kei "occasionally, for a laugh. You'd go there because you were going to get shouted at".

But Norman, who co-owns six central London restaurants including Polpo and Spuntino, strongly cautions prospective owners against trying to imitate these kind of shock tactics. They won't be appreciated by the overwhelming majority of customers, he says.

"If it's part of the deal, it's legitimate, it's a form of entertainment," he says. "But if you are not expecting it and you walk in and you're abused, it's horrible. Just the wrong comment from a waiter can completely ruin the whole experience."

Coach and Horses regulars like Peter O'Toole (pictured) revelled in its abrasive atmosphere

If market forces are any guide, the rarity of places like Wong Kei suggests rudeness in restaurants is very much a minority preference. Television audiences might enjoy watching chefs like Gordon Ramsay display their fearsome reputations in their kitchens, but there seems little enthusiasm among diners for being on the receiving end.

Even the authorities in Paris, whose reputation for culinary excellence was once impervious to an equally widespread renown for rude waiting staff, launched a guide to being nicer to overseas visitors after a 10% fall in tourism.

The demand for explicitly obnoxious service can be found in the United States, where the custom of tipping has made have-a-nice-day culture otherwise ubiquitous.

The bar chain Dick's Last Resort, whose USP is its "outrageous, surly" bartenders, boasts branches in 15 cities. Likewise, The Wieners Circle hot dog stand in Chicago and Sam Wo's Chinese restaurant in San Francisco - both of which encourage their employees to be as obnoxious as possible - feature prominently in tourist guides.

For waiting staff, the appeal of working in such a place - and not having to grit their teeth when customers are being troublesome - is more obvious.

But for some, encouraging patrons to act more politely might be preferable to confronting those who misbehave. One cafe in Nice, France, introduced an incentive scheme whereby customers were charged less if they said "hello" and "thank you" while ordering a coffee.

Even Sunday Times food critic AA Gill, known for his acidic reviews, believes rudeness has no place at the dining table. The rise of more informal eateries at the expense of grand, intimidating establishments is evidence that most customers want to feel relaxed when they go out for a meal.

"The point of a restaurant is to make someone else feel better," he says. "All that wine waiter, sniff-my-cork stuff was seen by people as a way of making them feel small. Everything about a restaurant should make you feel grand."

Such appears to be Wong Kei's logic in attempting to ditch its forthright reputation.

But in case British diners find themselves hankering after a dose of old-fashioned vitriol, McDowell says media coverage of the policy change has inspired her to keep open the option of a U-turn.

"I saw a lot of newspapers, they were saying: 'Keep the rudeness.' Others were saying: 'Don't keep the rudeness, we want polite service' - it all depends how it goes from here."

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