Saturday, 11 February 2012


With money tight eating is more of a treat for many of us but I am finding going to restaurants, particularly those owned by the large chains has evolved into a lottery. I am the first to offer praise when it is due - but more often than not I feel let down. Surely I cannot be alone in my view. 

You know the kind of thing that happens; you build a high expectation in anticipation of having a tasty meal and a really enjoyable experience but you end up thoroughly disappointed by the slow, sloppy  service and food that fails to live up to expectations. 

Last night was a classic example. My wife and I took friends to a lovely old pub, the Black Horse, alongside the Grand Union Canal at Great Linford, Milton Keynes. We hadn't eaten there for a few years. It was then called the Proud Perch and everything about the place was excellent. So, we had high hopes of renewing our acquaintance with the place by having a great dining experience. But, things didn't quite work out that way.
We'd pre-booked but found the bar to be crowded when we arrived so we positioned ourselves at a clearing at one end close to the dining area. Just two bar staff were frantically serving but ignored us for several minutes. Okay, they were busy - but a simple acknowledgement - a greeting suggesting 'somebody will be with you in a moment' would have been the kind of gesture expected. After being shown to our table it was quite a while before the waitress came. She was the only one serving about a dozen tables but she should have been able to cope. With several of the overhead spotlights not working, I had insufficient light to read the menu and my wife had to do this for me. I had to request a wine list. After asking if they had a Rioja and was informed 'we have Spanish Rioja'. Hmm! We asked for water (bottled and tap) but had to ask twice more when it hadn't arrived. We also asked repeatedly for the drinks ordered by our guests to be served. After some time  the wine came but with no decorum it was plonked on the table and left for us to pour ourselves. No big deal - but a modicum of basic staff training - or a level of customer interest from our waitress - would have ensured she at least made an effort. 

Three of the four starters were stone cold. Informing the waitress was ignored with an attitude suggesting 'Well, what do you expect?' I didn't press the issue because she was otherwise engaged kicking ice under a table that she had spilt from a neighbouring table's ice bucket. In any case we didn't want to send the food back because you fear the reaction when food is returned to a kitchen! 

It was the best part of an hour before the main courses were served. The food, I must say, was good although the grilled tomato garnish with my fillet steak was freezing cold, the pepper sauce barely warm. We were not offered any condiments; salt and pepper were on the table but despite asking twice for vinegar none was forthcoming. When I mentioned this the waitress explained 'You're not having a good day!' The burger ordered with bacon and cheese by one of my party was missing its toppings but he was brave enough to return it and within minutes it came back with the correct additions. 

During the waiting period we engaged the waitress in conversation. At first I felt a little sorry for her when she said some serving staff had been told not to come in because, although a Friday evening, it was the coldest night of the year. 'The manager hadn't expected it to be busy!' This may have been so but as the evening progressed we got tired of her really sloppy attitude towards customers and moaning about not liking her job.
The dining room was freezing.  Although having a wood burning fire, this was almost left to burn out, and the radiators were hardly warm. The occupants of two tables moved; one couple several times, just to find a warmer spot.  

After asking for the bill I waited over ten minutes before approaching the bar to try and pay but was chased by the waitress who grumbled 'Do you want to pay darling?' but concluded she thought we were attempting to do a runner. 

The entire experience was a thorough disappointment and none of us will go back to the Black Horse in a hurry. This is a shame because the ambience has the potential to be very good - but nobody wants to eat in a freezing cold dining area and be served by a member of staff that plainly has no interest in serving. Perhaps if owners paid their staff a little bit more and gave them more respect, customers might expect more commitment?

One of my party used the gents' toilet and wished he hadn't - it was he said: 'disgusting'. There is no excuse for having filthy toilets. In my estimation - a good way to judge an establishment is by inspecting the toilets. Perhaps we should have done this before dining there!

But, who is to blame for this? I have noticed that pub-style restaurants appear to have cut their staffing levels to the bone leaving customers disgruntled by having to wait far longer than they should to be served and the food often arrives cold. Last night was no exception; although the food standard was generally acceptable, it was inconsistent because some was hot - the rest cold. I am finding the standards of food served in many chains to be falling far below expectation and the prices do not always reflect the quality. I often avoid ordering steak now although the fillet I had last night was good. However, ordering a steak at many chain restaurants is frequently a disaster. The meat cuts are too often full of fat and gristle and rarely cooked correctly. 

I feel the large companies that own these restaurants are cutting their noses to spite their face.  They have become too large and have lost sight of customer requirements by putting targets before customer satisfaction. Cutting staff levels creates inefficiency that angers customers who are likely to react by going elsewhere. Pub owners are constantly harping on about how difficult things are in the industry, but they are failing to address the need to provide value for money or are offering even the basic levels of an enjoyable dining experience. Paying over £30 a head for a three-course meal with drinks is not, in the course of things, excessive - but when things fail to live up to expectations and you are faced with sloppy service this certainly does not represent good value for money. It really is time that the chain restaurants started to dramatically improve their standards.

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