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What Indian restaurants do wrong

I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that restaurant cooking in India is now approaching global standards.

But sadly, there are few Indian restaurants that reach the level of the best places in, say, New York and London.


The difference is service. While Indian restaurants (and especially those located at deluxe hotels) now make a real effort to make sure that the kitchen has the best equipment and that the chef has access to the finest ingredients, nobody bothers too much with what the trade calls the front-of-the-house, that is, the service quality in the dining room. I am always appalled by how little training goes into service standards and how waiters are expected to figure things out for themselves.


   Contrast this with the West. People may quibble about the quality of the food at the restaurants run by the Corbin and King team in London (of which, The Wolseley is probably the best known) but nobody will dispute that service standards are impeccable. In New York, Danny Meyer (the Union Square Cafe, etc.) manages to serve better food than Corbin and King but the defining quality of all his restaurants is the quality of the service.


   I have been trying to work out what Indian restaurants do wrong – in service terms, at least. Here are a few of the things I’ve noticed over the years.


The Welcome: Every hotelier will tell you that you can lose a guest at the very beginning of his stay if he is not made to feel welcome when he checks in.


   Curiously enough, many of these hoteliers do not realise that exactly the same thing is true of restaurants. All good restaurants, all over the world, devote a lot of time and money to a) the reservation process and b) the welcome.


   In India, the phone is either answered by the person nearest the instrument at the time or by a hostess who is usually the junior-most and worst-paid member of the staff. It is often impossible to make a booking or even to make the person who answers the phone understand what you are saying.


   When you enter the restaurant, an inexperienced young person with zero training will greet you. Half the time, she or he will be so nervous or ill at ease that she or he will not have the confidence to make you feel welcome.


   In the West, on the other hand, the greeter or the person you encounter when you first walk into the restaurant is a key employee. He or she should know regular guests by face, should be familiar with the day’s bookings and table availability, and should be able to make you feel welcome.


   As you are led to the table, every member of staff around you will maintain eye contact, will smile and will also welcome you. This may seem like a small thing but it makes an enormous difference to the guest’s mood. At Nobu, they reckon that one reason Westerners relax when they enter the restaurant, is because members of staff keep shouting Irasshaimase (welcome in Japanese) at them.


   At every good restaurant, the transition from hostess to serving staff is smooth. The hostess will seat you at your table and go. And then, within minutes, your server will appear with menus and ask what you want to drink. (At some places, the hostess may have already taken your drinks order.)


   Few restaurants in India have a similar routine mapped out for the welcome. And when they do, it is usually flawed.


Menus: At every good restaurant in the West, the staff have tried every dish on the menu. So when you ask your waiter if a pasta, for instance, has lots of cream, he will know what answer to give you. In India, even the top restaurants don’t bother to educate their staff. Half the time, the managers have no clue what the food is like.


   Instead, what will happen when you sit down is this: some guy will come and hand you large, unwieldy menus and vanish. You will open them to discover that they are, in fact, beverage menus. As you do not need to pore through the list of mostly boring cocktails and exactly the same liquor as every other restaurant, you put the menus away.


"Some idiot has told Indian servers that their job consists of clearing things. In no other country are waiters so eager to clear away plates and glasses." 

   A few minutes later, the waiter will reappear? “May I take the drinks order,” he will ask. When you say that you don’t want a drink, he will look at you as though you are a cheapskate, leave in disgust and then return with the actual menu.


   In the West, you will be asked (but no beverage menu will be presented) if you want an aperitif and handed the food menus immediately. The wine list will come last because you can’t order the wine till you know what you are eating. (Don’t get me started on the quality of Indian sommeliers, which should be part of the experience.)


Service: There are different levels of service. Basically, everybody likes feeling that they have been given special attention by the manager himself. This is not always possible but at a good restaurant, every table should get at least one visit from the manager, even if it is only to check that everything is okay. Sometimes, the manager will appear later (he can’t take everyone’s orders) to take, say, the dessert or coffee order. No one must be made to feel like a second-class citizen while the manager is fawning over VIPs or high rollers.


   Needless to say, none of that ever happens here.


   Some Western restaurants go to extremes. At NoMad, Daniel Humm’s other New York restaurant (after Eleven Madison Park), the manager came to my table for a chat. He discussed the food in such detail that I wondered whether they assumed that anyone who turned up was a dedicated and inquisitive foodie. Later, I discovered that the restaurant Googled anyone who made a reservation. Obviously, they had discovered that I had more than a passing interest in food.


   In London, at Le Gavroche, for years the city’s best restaurant (it still has two Michelin stars), the legendary manager Silvano Giraldin would go to each table to discuss the food and take the order in person. As he never took a single note and the orders were never messed up, people used to wonder how he did it.


   The trick was that the waiter assigned to the table would stand some distance away, but still within earshot. He would hear the order and note it down. But as far as the guest was concerned, it was all Silvano.


Space: The concept of the bubble is unknown to Indian restaurants. Which is crazy – because it is a simple enough idea, really. When a waiter approaches a guest he imagines that he or she is surrounded by an invisible bubble that no one can penetrate. So while serving the food, no waiter invades a guest’s personal space or comes close enough to make the guest uncomfortable.


   At many of the world’s great restaurants, staff are instructed to brush their teeth and have showers before service. They are also prevented from wearing overpowering colognes or aftershaves.


   In India, I’ve lost count of the times (even at very expensive places) when waiters have displayed questionable personal hygiene. I imagine nobody senior makes much of this for the same reason that I keep quiet about it: it seems snobbish and offensive to say that somebody’s BO is putting you off the meal. (My point is restricted to expensive restaurants; I don’t have the same expectations at modest places where there might be economic or practical difficulties.)


   At good restaurants in the West, you rarely have to point this out. They know that guests are uncomfortable about objecting to bodily odours so the manager will make sure the situation never arises.


Clearing: Some idiot has told Indian servers that their job consists of clearing things. In no other country are waiters so eager to clear away plates and glasses. You may be saving that last sip of wine but before you know it, the glass has been cleared. You may have finished one glass of wine but may still want more because there is wine left in the bottle. But no, your glass will have been cleared. And usually, they don’t even bother to ask you before they start clearing.


Pouring: In the West, customers tense up when waiters start pouring wine and water into glasses that are still half-full. They knew that at dodgy establishments staff are instructed to do this in the hope of getting you to order more wine or sparkling water so the restaurant can make a greater profit.


   In India, waiters are trained to always do this. I don’t think it is because restaurants want to push guests into ordering more wine. I think staff genuinely believe that they are being super efficient when they keep topping up glasses. (It is like the obsessive urge to clear things all the time.) Somebody should stop it. But I am not sure the managers know any better.


And finally: We need some high quality training and some SOPs for service staff. Until we do that, our restaurants will never be world class, no matter how good the food is.





  • Tariq 08 Jul 2018

    As a young hotelier, I couldn't agree more!

Posted On: 07 Jul 2018 04:30 PM
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