The restaurants that thrive on insulting their diners

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.

Wong Kei 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".

Britannia Hotel

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."

Peter O'Toole at the Coach and Horses 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.

At your service

Fawlty Towers

Basil: Are you dining here tonight, here in this unfashionable dump?

Mr Johnson: I wasn't planning to.

Basil: No, not really your scene is it?

Mr Johnson: I thought I'd try somewhere in town. Anywhere you recommend?

Basil: Well, what sort of food were you thinking of... fruit or...?

Mr Johnson: Anywhere they do French food?

Basil: Yes, France I believe. They seem to like it there, and the swim would certainly sharpen your appetite. You'd better hurry, the tide leaves in six minutes.

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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Here is a selection of your memories of Wong Kei.

Wong Kei's holds a special place in my heart and was always a stop if on a night out on the town. I took a potential girlfriend there once as part of a date night. I'd briefed her, sort of, about what to expect but it was even better than I'd hoped for. It can be busy so when we went in we were immediately shown to different tables, no options or explanations given - still within eye contact though if you craned you neck just so - and when I asked for duck's feet as part of my order the waiter hit me with his pen hand as he was scribbling and shouted "Ducks feet, you like?" I then asked for a few other things and was told that it would take too long and I could not have them. It was brilliant. But my date was, shall we say, not too impressed. I've still not tried duck's feet either. I'm still laughing about it though and the story comes out at every opportunity.

Ross Fraser, Aberdeen, Scotland, UK.

Someone at a nearby table was drumming his chopsticks on the table as he chatted, the waiter when walking past just grabbed the chopsticks firmly to stop him whilst glaring intensely into his eyes, then walked off without a word.

Waldo Pepper, London

Classic Wong Kei story. Group of diners on next table, going through lengthening list of dishes. Waiter suddenly announces "That's enough!" ... shuts his notebook and walks off. Amazingly good value food however.

Andy Finney, Near Corby Northants

As a stagehand in London's West End many years ago, my colleagues and I were twice weekly visitors to Wong Kei's. "Eat now, talk later" was one memorable "request'" made of us and once while drumming with my clean chopsticks I had another tables dirty one's throw in my lap with the words "Don't bang chopstick on table" shouted at me! Loved it, and recommend everyone to go before they sanitise it.

C Turner, London

I'm a big fan of Wong Kei (aka Wonkys). The food is excellent, very good value and the poor service is hilarious. Back in the 80s when I was 19 years old I went there with my French girlfriend at the time whereby we elected to sit at a table other than the one pointed at by the waiter since we didn't want to join the customary Wong Kei group of strangers on their round tables that particular evening! The waiter took immediate objection to our audacious expression of freedom as we sought out a table for two instead. We were promptly ejected (i.e. thrown out) by him as perceived by his repeated utterance of "bye bye", "bye bye" a couple of dozen times in a heavy Chinese accent. I found the matter absolutely hilarious but unfortunately she did not, being more used to gastronomie than I was I imagine. The more I laughed the more she got mad and we spent a while arguing before going back in since it's so big that we didn't get the same waiter the second time. Her order was correct and delicious but I got the wrong food as was often the case in there back then whereby only the bravest of customers would complain. It was much ruder in the 80s than it is now. In fact I took a group of colleagues there since telling them how quirky the place was but the staff failed me badly by asking us if we were enjoying our meals. Now at Wong Kei that is really not on! On reflection, it's maybe not the best place to treat a lady though.

Patrick McManus, Sutton, Surrey

We managed to beat the Wong Kei gestapo, by arriving 30 seconds after each other and sitting together on the ground floor. I love the place, great food, great price, no phony service.

Royston, London

Wong Kei is an institution. I've been dining there for decades. Love the table sharing bit as well. Apart from the rudeness, I know of no other place where you can be seated, order a 2 course meal, and be out and paid within 10 minutes. I was introduced to it in the late '80s as theChinese Fawlty Towers and it certainly lived up to it's reputation. Although I have been disappointed the last few times I've been as service has been extremely polite. My favourite overheard conversation was 2 Korean girls at our table. "What'd you want?", "erm, are the noodles flat noodles or thin ones?" "Noodles are noodles, order or go!"

Peter T, London

I often went to Wong Kei when I was a student in London. As soon as you went in you found the ground floor tables all taken. The staff would direct you to the spiral staircase shouting "up! Up!" The process would be repeated on the next floor and the next after that until you reached the top. Still, it was cheap which was important in those days (mid 1980s).

Andrew Ramen, London

I was in Wong Kei in the 1980s, where else could you get a meal in London for a fiver? Two New Zealand tourists wanted to pay by credit card and had no cash. The waiter wanted to take their watches but when he looked at them shouted "these no Rolex's!" and called the police. When they arrived the police persuaded them to take the watches after issuing a receipt while they went to a cash point.

Brian Fountain, Ross on Wye, UK

I'm a veteran of the Wong Kei and used it to entertain visitors - it was very much a part of London life under the old regime. I recall the waiter drawing a line down the middle of the table to partition us off from another couple. When one of my guests who rarely ate Chinese food tried green tea there for the first time ever and decided she liked it, asked the waiter 'What do you call this tea?' The reply? 'Tea.' Another fine institution gone.

Zax, Amersham, UK

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