How many restaurant gripes can one person have? Quite a few, it seems, considering this is my fifth instalment on the subject.
Some readers are over it already. "Maybe she should stop going out," wrote one after my last restaurant column. "Is complaining your hobby?" asked another.
There are some readers on my wavelength, though. "What a fun experience it must be to join your table," wrote one. (Just joking. That person was not impressed by my catalogue of woes and suggested that Burger King might be more to my liking. Ouch!)
There's a good reason I have so much pent-up angst about restaurants. I will never, under any circumstances, complain at the time. If it's a minor gripe, I let it slide. If it significantly impacts on the experience, I just won't return to the establishment concerned.
From the moment I enter a restaurant, I am on my best behaviour. I don't want to annoy anyone who is cooking or serving my food. I don't want spit in my soup. I've heard how disgruntled waiters punish nasty customers and that is why I aim to be a model diner at all times. It also explains how this series of gripes originated. Here are five that have not yet been explored.
1. "Have you dined with us before?"
Its intention is probably harmless but this question doesn't quite work. The wait person usually asks it just as you're seated at the table, and there's something slightly mysterious and inhospitable about the enquiry.
• Are they asking if we are regulars here?
• Will we be judged if we admit we are newbies?
• Is there some sort of initiation ceremony foisted on raw recruits?
• Is this restaurant so different to other establishments that we will require an orientation tour?
It's a borderline uncomfortable question that has the potential to discombobulate patrons from the outset.
2. "Are you familiar with how our menu works?"
This question entered common restaurant parlance about the time sharing plates became fashionable. "Most of the items on our menu are designed for sharing," is all the wait person really needs to say. Better still, this information could be printed on the menu.
When someone asks me if I know how a menu works, I suppress the urge to reply:
"Hmmmm, let me hazard a guess. We order stuff and it's delivered to our table when it's ready? Yes, I believe I am familiar with the concept."
3. Indelicately communicated time limits
I have no problem with popular restaurants having early sittings and late sittings. It's totally appropriate in casual, convivial places and most informal dinners should be able to be completed within the allotted timeframe.
But restaurants can run into difficulties when communicating this deadline. Mentioning it on the telephone when booking is fine. So is including it politely in an email confirmation. It's also okay to do it face-to-face once the diners have been served drinks and been made to feel welcome.
However, it's not very friendly to remind us that we're on a (restaurant-imposed) tight schedule before we're even seated. A better time to reinforce this message would be when we're feeling cared for and relaxed, not when we've yet to settle fully into the vibe of the place. And, it's certainly not okay for the wait person to mention this ticking clock every time he or she visits our table. That's just annoying.
4. Wait staff leaning over food
Following a spate of near sleeve-in-food experiences, I have become unduly bugged by this. I realise that the geography of some tables means wait staff may occasionally need to reach across people to deliver food to a landlocked diner, but needlessly leaning in front of a guest rather than walking a few paces to the other end of the table is rude and unprofessional.
It's probably unhygienic, too, as gravity enables germs to travel downwards and onto the food below. But it's not as unhygienic as spit so I tolerate these infringements in silence.
5. Misuse of bench-seating
When men and women dine together in a restaurant with an upholstered bench-seat along one wall, it seems to be an unwritten rule that the women sit in this banquette while their male companions take the individual chairs opposite. I see this rule adhered to at least ninety per cent of the time. Occasionally, you'll spy a lone man on the bench-seat while his female partner sits opposite - and it just looks wrong.
Usually I'd attempt to establish the origins of a gender-based norm and question its relevance to our society today. But banquettes are comfortable, afford a nice view of the room and provide a convenient place for resting your handbag. They really are prime real estate as far as restaurant seating is concerned, and it's not in my interests to examine this unwritten code too closely.