Our restaurant reviewer Peter Calder on what restaurants do wrong. Sometimes the customers could do with a tune-up, too.

The trio of young women at the next table in the cafe were complaining so loudly that it was impossible not to eavesdrop. The subject of their conversation was a new Ponsonby Rd restaurant that had just changed hands and was basking in the glow of excellent reviews. Except mine. And, as it transpired, theirs.

As the litany of criticisms lengthened, journalistic curiosity got the better of politeness and I asked, after a suitable preamble, whether they had said anything to the management. They looked at me as though I was mad.

"No," they said, in virtual unison. "We just won't go back."

"Well," I replied. "That'll teach them."


They nodded enthusiastically, pleased with my endorsement of their strategy and apparently oblivious to the intended irony. Because it won't, of course, teach them a damn thing.

Restaurants, believe it or not, want their diners to be happy. They know that their success or failure depends on it. Unhappy customers don't come back, nor are they likely to drum up new custom.

That's why almost all restaurants have a habit of getting waiting staff to pop the odious question, "Is everything all right with your meals?" It insures them against troublesome objections when it's time to pay.

I call it an odious question, because the best places know that everything is always all right and, when it's not, they notice because they "read" the diners. I remember a meal in Paris, during which the waiter materialised at my side. "Is everything all right, sir?" he inquired, sotto voce. I realised that I'd winced. It was nothing to do with the food. Probably I was thinking about one of my previous wives. But he had noticed.

Note his phrasing, though. He didn't inquire whether the meal was all right, because he knew it was sublime. But if something was the matter with me, he was happy to help.

If it's a big night, there's no need to shout about it. Your jubilation, particularly if you are part of a large party, may not improve the evening in the rest of the room.


His local counterparts should take note: they may not notice a wince, but should react to the sight of a diner with arms folded, glaring balefully at the plate. Otherwise, they should stay clear.

In fact, diners ought to know that they are under no obligation to pay for a dish they dislike. If you get into an argument about it, just give them your contact details and suggest they refer the matter to the Disputes Tribunal. But -- and this is important -- you need to make your feelings known after a couple of mouthfuls. It's not much use lambasting a dish as inedible when you've eaten it.

You should certainly report any inadequacies of a meal you have eaten or wish, in the interests of not disrupting the evening, to persist with: if the steak was overdone or underdone, ask for another; if the dish was too salty, say so. At a restaurant worth returning to, they will do something to compensate: waive a charge, offer a digestif or a sticky. If the waitress says blandly, "I'll let chef know" and nothing more is said, you may take it that she said only, "The woman on table seven is a whining cow" as she offloaded your dirty dishes.

Given that I spend a good deal of time castigating restaurants for their shortcomings, it seems a good time to remind their customers that they bear some responsibility for a meal's success. So here, in no particular order, are a few tips for diners.

If you're going to be more than five minutes late for a booking, or if your party of five has become three or seven, call ahead. In this day and age, when the term "anal" is applied to people who turn up for international flights with their passport actually on them, I suppose such courtesies are a bit old-fashioned. But restaurants plan table times and party sizes to keep things running smoothly and they can do without sabotage, unintended or not.

If it's a big night, there's no need to shout about it. Your jubilation, particularly if you are part of a large party, may not improve the evening in the rest of the room.

Lay off the strong perfume: in an environment where taste and smell is important, it's as intrusive as lighting up a fat Cohiba.

Don't start redesigning the menu: if a dish features an ingredient you don't like, ask politely if they can hold it out or substitute it, but otherwise, order something else.

Don't treat waiters and waitresses as servants: they are adults, doing a job. Speak nicely to them ("please" and "thank you" are good words); don't flick your fingers.

And turn your bloody phone off. If the call is that important, maybe you should be somewhere else.