Brian Edwards Media

How success can spoil an excellent restaurant – and why we’d still go back.


 Today,  Easter Monday,  we decided to have lunch down at the Viaduct. A couple of months ago we’d discovered this marvellous Italian restaurant there -The Merchants of Venice. The food was superb, the service exceptional. We’d gone back a month or so later and were not disappointed. For the second time I took the trouble to congratulate the chef. ‘Brilliant. Thank you.’

On both of those occasions The Merchants of Venice had been reasonably quiet. Today the restaurant, and seemingly the entire waterfront, was packed. We nonetheless asked for a table for two. The maitre d’ informed us that there would be a 15 to 20 minute wait for a table. Would we like to sit at the bar?

Judy explained that her husband was diabetic and would have to eat reasonably soon. The maitre d’ brought the menu and the wine list. We ordered a bottle of cheapish Italian pinot grigio and some sparkling water. Carbohydrate to fend off a possible hypo was the next urgent requirement.

On our previous visits we’d ordered the bread and dips to start with. A variety of interesting breads and three delicious dips had arrived post haste.

We waited a lot longer today. What finally arrived was a mountain of bread and two smallish portions of dips. The bread was dry and heavy. One of the dips bore a passing resemblance to pesto in aioli; the other, a yellowish concoction which Judy swears she saw squirted from a plastic bottle, had no flavour we could identify. We left most of the bread and half the dips.

More than 20 minutes later, the maitre d’ returned to ask us if we’d be happy to sit at the back of the restaurant. Beggars, as they say, can’t be choosers, and we reluctantly agreed. The pleasure of eating in these waterfront restaurants is being able to see the water and the passing parade. You couldn’t see the water from our table next to the toilets. Nor, given the relative darkness of that part of the restaurant , could you see anything at all. The couples on either side of us, who were already seated when we’d  arrived at the restaurant, had that hangdog look of diners who’ve waited too long and have exhausted every ounce of small-talk that can fill the empty conversational space before the food arrives.  

We had by now drunk more than half the wine and two thirds of the sparkling water. The meals for the couples on either side of us finally arrived. Ravenous dogs could not have eaten more quickly. I surmised that they’d been waiting longer than half an hour. The Asian couple on our right asked for the bill and left immediately. ‘How was the pizza?’ I asked our Kiwi neighbours on the left.  ‘Really good,’ said the husband, ‘when it finally arrived! ‘ They also left immediately.

After waiting at the table for half an hour, I’d had enough. I approached a guy whose job appeared to involve checking with the chef on how the orders were going and said I’d really like to see our mains before we’d finished our bottle of wine. He reappeared five minutes later with the fish, apologised and said he’d bring two more glasses of wine, on the house.

The fish was fine. The promised gratis glasses of wine never arrived. Indeed the truth of the matter was that nothing resembling service had been  in evidence since we’d sat down at the table. It had taken frantic waving by Judy even to produce some cracked pepper.

When we’d finished, a rather nice English waiter arrived to ask us if we’d like some dessert. No, but a long black and a flat white would be nice. And a cointreau for the lady and a grand marnier for me. Those would be on the house, I explained, in lieu of the promised glasses of wine which had never arrived.

They didn’t have any grand marnier No problem, we settled for  two cointreaux. Instead. But the flat white had that granular surface  which indicates the milk has been over-heated. Heigh ho.

We paid the bill and left.

I can almost hear you muttering about up-themselves Herne Bay food snobs. But, with the exception of the bloody awful dips and the indifferent coffee, this really wasn’t about the food at all. It wasn’t even entirely about the non-existent service.

We don’t need to go out to enjoy good food. Judy is a superb cook and I’m no slouch myself. So why eat out at all? Well, it’s all to do with the experience, with the enjoyment of being in pleasant surroundings, being served good food and wine and generally looked after by attentive staff.

This was not a pleasant experience. Why?

Well, the chef at The Merchants of Venice is brilliant, the wait staff on our previous visits were friendly and attentive, and the surroundings on the harbour side of the restaurant are pleasant and offer lots to see.

What happened today was that the restaurant couldn’t cope with the numbers of people who turned up for lunch.

So that’s all right then. Well no. They could seat all those people but they couldn’t possibly feed and water them in reasonable time or give them even minimal service once they were seated. Too many tables, too few chefs, too great demands on the wait staff. Bad management. A culinary re-run of the great Rugby World Cup train disaster of 2011.

Yeah, but be fair, Brian. Nobody expected all those people on the train. And probably the restaurant didn’t expect so many people either. Well, as my son Ollie, who owns and runs one of Wellington’s top restaurants, would say, ‘Dad, in this business there’s just no room for excuses.’

Anyway, we made our way up to Wellesley Street and got the Outer Link bus home. The driver made no eye contact, didn’t say hi, hello, g’day or thank you, just nodded in the direction of the ticket as it came out of the machine.

Good god, it’s amazing that we have any tourists in New Zealand at all. Egalitarianism is all well and good, but we seem to equate service with servility and surliness with evidence of self-respect. It’s time we got over ourselves.

We’ll go back to The Merchants of Venice on a non-holiday workday. The food is great. (If you doubt it, check the on-line reviews.) All they need is better management – and maybe fewer tables.

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  1. Its not only restaurents and buses,its a terrible part of our culture which should be addressed.The banks etc all have replaced service with,I dont know what.Jobs I have worked in managers have replaced service with greater profit.The restaurent you speak of was making short term gains which may result in long term losses.Dont even mention tradesmen.

  2. We had a similar experience today, though it does pale into significance compared to your ordeal! I read the usual cafe review in the Saturday Canvas mag – the Herald glossy and it gushed about the Humbug Cafe in Glen Eden – scored it 5 out of 5 no less. Better half and I decided that it certainly needed to be sussed out and envisaged an enjoyable lunch to round off a satisfying Easter weekend.
    Well, we drove into Rua Road, Glen Eden and found no sign of life at all at the Humbug Cafe – it certainly was closed up tight. Will we go back, well, maybe. We ended up at The Packing Shed, Oratia, which is in my humble opinion in desperate need of a major overhaul. We also had a wine taste at Artisan Wines [very nice] and I discovered a trove of ceramic geckos for sale at the Eden Craft Shop [reminded me of our week at Rarotonga a few years ago, when they regularly appeared on the walls of the lounge, bedroom, loo, or just anywhere!]. I purchased one and have put in an order for a few more for birthday presents from the family!

  3. Speaking as a regular eater outer….theres no way anyone with half a clue goes out on a public holiday to a popular restaurant!

    Judy’s cooking sounds much better.

  4. We had a unusual poor service at the Atlas restaurant at the Novotel Rotorua where we are regular for long weekends, looking around you couldnt help but notice the place was under staffed and staffed with teens only, im thinking 2 days over the weekend at time & 1/2 and a day in lieu, the ppl rostered on were the ones who were the cheapest.

  5. We call it the vile duct, try not to go there. Had a mediocre experience at Simon Gault’s revamped Euro.

    Our two favourite places at the mo are The Depot – been three times lately, and TriBeCa, which the idiotically smug Jesse Mulligan at Metro magazine slung various underhand insults at, but it’s always been an oasis for us.

  6. I agree with Miss Odgers above…eating out over a long holiday weekend is a recipe( excuse the pun) for disaster but as you quite rightly point out, this does not not excuse crap service or restaurants overloading beyond their capacity to deliver….research shows that if you have a good dining experience you invariably tell 1-2 other people…if you have a negative experience you tell 15!

    In this case, Brian , you’ve buggared the researchers and told all of us….very Shakespearean :-)

  7. For a diabetic, you appear to push your luck diet-wise, Brian; you must be on Metformin. Haven’t crossed Hibernian swords with you on ‘Afternoons’ lately. Radio New Zealand are clearly terrified that I’ll die in Jim’s studio!

    God bless you, sorr, god bless you…

    BE: Thank for the blessing, Don. No one needs it more. I’m sure lots of RNZ listeners miss you on Afternoons, as I do. Let’s hope they come to their senses. Though you have been looking a bit peaky of late.

    As to the diabetes, I’ve been on insulin for several months and my figures are just fine. It’s actually easier than swallowing tablets.

    In the meantime: Lang may yer lum reek!

  8. And don’t get me started on the ‘holiday surcharge’. I pay it, but argue the point every time.

    BE: Couldn’t agree more. But widespread resistance by customers is leading to the practice being abandoned. None of the restaurants or cafes we frequented over Easter were charging it. Most had signs saying ‘no surcharge’.

  9. Having been a waitress in a busy location (we were never known for the cuisine – just convenience), it was drilled into us that service was all. Yes, we’re busy, but the smile and focus do not leave the head least our job follow.

    BE: Yes, my son the chef says that a restaurant with just OK food can survive, but a restaurant with poor service won’t.

  10. You have raised a more complex point than perhaps you realise, Brian. I agree entirely with your son that service is all. I too have a son who works in what is loosely referred to as hospo except with him it’s bar management. But if you want to deliver service then you have to have a well trained and committed staff and you have to have quite a high ratio of them to customers. If you are running an eatery at whatever level then that’s going to add significantly to your payroll and most restaurant managers aren’t prepared to do that. Wages in the hospo industry are notoriously low and (in Wellington at least) at least half the staff in any central city bar or restaurant you go into are not professionals but students working through university. Some of them do very well despite this, but others are completely at sea. This is all part of the reason why the surcharge on public holidays is so offensive. This began as an initiative of the employers’ organisations who want to shut down on paying penal time on public holidays to reduce payroll. What they are trying to do is to make you sufficiently pissed off about having to pay extra to pressure your MPs to abolish statutory penal time and days off in lieu. I’m pleased to say it isn’t working. But what is is doing instead is essentially disrespecting workers in the food and drink service industry which is exactly what we shouldn’t be doing. A disrespected work force is a disgruntled work force and in those circumstances service goes right out the window. But then – people in this country rarely think through the consequences of the position they adopt.

    BE: Thank you, Tony. You’ll not be surprised that I entirely agree with you that ‘the labourer is worthy of his/her hire’. I suppose the trouble for the average restaurant/café user is that they have no idea what the wait- of other staff in the eatery are paid or whether it is reasonable or unreasonable. All they know is that the identical meal they bought last Sunday, served by the same people who served them last Sunday, costs 15 or 20% more this Sunday. And they don’t like it. What seems to be happening in Auckland is that restaurant and café owners have taken this on board and concluded that customer ill will and (possibly) loss of patronage were costing them more than the surcharge. The restaurants and cafés we frequent don’t employ students, so I can’t comment on that. I do know that the restaurant business can be pretty tough and that, according to Forbes Magazine, a restaurant is the enterprise most likely to fail. From a business perspective it seems to me that owners would be best to include in their forward planning the days on which they know they will have to pay their staff more or give them days off in lieu, and cover that with a small overall increase in their prices. The punters would still be paying the surcharge, but they wouldn’t notice it.

    Anyway, great to hear from you. When you’re next in Auckland, come for a meal. No surcharge. In fact no charge at all. Cheers. Brian

  11. “The Asian couple on our right asked for the bill and left immediately.”

    Apologies for a slightly off-topic diversion, but I am genuinely puzzled and hopeful the wise community here can help me out. For the longest time I have held the view that “asking for the bill” is an alien custom and not the done thing here in NZ. Surely here is customary that when you’re ready to go, you simply get up and leave, paying the bill on the way out.

    That’s what I’ve always done, although I quickly found out I needed to modify this behaviour overseas, as you call for the bill, add the tip, when in Rome etc.

    However, lately I have begun to doubt my own sanity (no doubt many of you have noted my affection for the Key government and decided there is no doubt). Maybe I’ve had it wrong all along and I’ve been a one-man band flouting convention without even realising it. My dear wife has even taken to suggesting we should really stay put and ask for the bill.

    Am I a barbarian in my restaurant bill paying habits ?

    BE: “Am I a barbarian in my restaurant bill paying habits ?” Not at all. You should do whatever suits you rather than worry about convention. I think it depends a little on the the type of restaurant and the experience you’ve just had. After a delicious meal in an upmarket restaurant that’s lasted maybe a couple of hours, I’m in no mood to rush up to the counter to pay the very second I’ve downed the last drop of coffee. I want to linger a bit and savour the evening. But if it was chicken and cashew nuts at the local hole-in-the-wall, I don’t expect the staff to present me with the bill at the table. Chacun a son gout.

  12. Ahhh…First World troubles, they’re a bitch, aren’t they?

    And while I’m here, pjr said (right at the top): “The banks etc all have replaced service with,I dont know what…(and)…Dont even mention tradesmen.”

    Not at my bank mate, they greet my humble account with a smile as big as if I was a millionaire, and the tradesmen I know and use are just great: efficient, skilled and human as well (you can actually talk with them at lunchtime and over a beer).

    Could expectations/attitude have something to do with the results one gets?

    BE: “Could expectations/attitude have something to do with the results one gets?” No, the results will be unaffected by your expectations. Your response to the results will. So to avoid disappointment it’s best to have low expectations of service, whether from a restaurant or your bank. If enough people do that, then maybe the standard of service will actually fall. After all, why should they put in all that effort, when people clearly don’t expect it. Our problem on this particular occasion was that we had very high expectations of the food and service, based on two previous visits. As a restaurateur I think I’d prefer people to have high expectations of my establishment, and risk the possibility that they might occasionally be disappointed. I did say we would go back.

  13. 13

    @Wake Up, 100% agree.

  14. Great and thoroughly entertaining piece Brian – well worthy of Intemperate Outbursts – The Sequel”.

    A 3% surcharge would excessively cover the penal rates in most establishments: at 15 or 20% is simply a Greed Tax. I won’t and don’t pay it, and nor do I charge it.

  15. ““The Asian couple on our right asked for the bill and left immediately.”

    When I get the bill and pay I usually leave immediately. Why is this unusual? I would have thought it odd to pay the bill and then occupy the table for a further hour.

    BE: And normally so do I. My impression was that this couple who were sitting at the table waiting for their food when we arrived and had still not been served half an hour later, just wanted to eat and get out of there. And who said anything about ‘occupying the table for a further hour’? Not, incidentally, uncommon in cafés where people order a coffee then read the paper from cover to cover for another 30 minutes. Selfish, inconsiderate, if well informed people.

  16. So, after about a 20 minute wait, by which time you have drunk more than half a bottle of ‘cheapish wine’, you are finally given a table at the back of the restaurant by the toilets

    The Asian couple seated on your right ask for their bill and leave immediately.

    “How was the pizza?” you ask the Kiwi couple sitting on the other side. They also leave immediately.

    Now to be fair, I can’t help but wonder if the real reason for the so called ‘bad service’ you complain of, may well be due to other problems which you have perhaps failed to recognize?

    BE: I just love these ‘Gotcha!’ comments. Message in this one – you were pissed and had lost your judgement. Well actually we’d drunk more than half the bottle of wine somewhere between 40 and 50 minutes after it had been served. And there were two of us. But let’s now quibble about the time. There are approximately 6 glasses of wine to a bottle. So half a bottle divided between two people would be one and a half glasses each. Oh let’s call it two glasses each, so that we don’t spoil your fun. And you forgot to mention that, due to the indifferent bread and dips, we’d eaten almost nothing. Though we did drink rather a lot of sparkling water. Look, I give up. You’re right. The whole thing was just a product of the alcoholic miasma in my brain. And in dipso Judy’s brain as well. Sorry!

  17. Could expectations/attitude have something to do with the results one gets?

    Not when I have been to the banking ombudsman twice and have him rule in my favour both times.
    Talking and drinking with tradesmen doesnt really satisfy my need for competent and timely work.Im sure fair go and Target would back me on this one .Even better is the “Holmes on Homes” which really opens your eyes to what can go on which we are not aware of.
    Wake Up and Alan you both live in a rarefied stratosphere I can only dream of.

  18. 18

    pjr, nope, I just live in a small community where everyone knows each other, our tradesmen are friends and neighbours and we chat with local shop (and bank) staff every day.

  19. Ah. the holiday surcharge, so beloved of the petit bourgeoisie who haven’t learnt how to write a budget for themselves. No wonder so many in this sector fail. You get a 15% surcharge on an ice-cream at the dairy in Murchison on public holidays.

  20. 20

    #11, So the Murchison dairy declines to have the locals (pop. 624) subsidise the holiday tourists? Shameful.

  21. cheap whine says: “So, after about a 20 minute wait, by which time you have drunk more than half a bottle of ‘cheapish wine’, you are finally given a table at the back of the restaurant by the toilets”

    Well, cheapo, if you and your dining companion can end up getting even half pissed on half a bottle of plonk between you, I think I’m safe to say on behalf of 90% of our readers that you are indeed, a very lucky man. And partner.

  22. I can heartily agree with most of waht you wrote except for the quality of the food. I’ve eaten there twice now (at lunchtime, so maybe it’s a different chef) and won’t be returning, having had drab and uninspired food and execrable service.

    I also went on a public holiday after Christmas (although it was far from crowded) and our waitress clearly didn’t want to be there and made her grievance silently and dourly felt to myself, my partner and my son. Then there was the 30-minute wait, the forgotten parts of the order and having to get up and get my own condiments. It wasn’t service, by any means and our waitress’s query as to whether I wanted to add a tip to my bill merely proved to me that as well as a massive chip on her shoulder, she also had a neck as tough as a jockey’s bollocks, if you’ll pardon the phrase.

    As I said above,. I won’t be returning, unless it’s at gunpoint. Clearly, they don’t need my custom, but alienating people is suicidal for a business.

  23. AW
    That’s just a nonsense Alan. The Murchison dairy owner has the choice of either making some serious coin on public holidays or paying wages to have his/her ice creams dumped back in the chiller. Read the earlier posts re attending to customers.

  24. 24

    #11, do you do the Murchison dairy accounts? How do you know what are the financial pros, cons and results? My guess is the owner knows a lot more about it than you.

  25. Call me old fashioned Brian, but I prefer fish and chips on the beach myself. Not really keen on stuffy eateries, especially those who delight in bashing the workers their because the whole place never revolved around them.

    Though, am not keen on this ‘we have run out of this /that so hard luck’. Not a good enough excuse IMO. If you run out of something then you need to get on the phone and call in every favour you can to get more in.

  26. Hear, hear

    Detractors aside, good use of the soapbox. F#*ks sake we can do with the occasional break from wanking on over the myriad of en ce moment societal/political/$$$ fails

    We are fortunate to have a pretty decent smorgasbord of eateries scattered around the isthmus; often, indeed, missing the servi’x’e factor. Too often my partner and I (current hospo | ex hospo) ‘dine’ out only to be discontented.

    Anecdotally many punters can’t be bothered taking issue; they just won’t return -and most assuredly talk share.

    As pointed out above consistency is key; and service basics (filling water, checking in [genuinely] and prompt communication of delays/issues) are too often absent.

    For kick ass real deal italian try Pane&Vino Williamson Ave (could be your new local B dawg ;p)

    p.s don’t wish to sound overly scroogeish; there are many gems around with hard working genuine crew. it’s a hard trade.