Eating Out In London? Good Luck!

A couple of weeks ago,I had lunch at the renovated Royal Festival complex near Waterloo. Nothing elaborate. Just fish,mash and peas. By the evening I knew I had a problem: Food poisoning. Three days later and just about recovered,there was no point in going back to the café to complain. I couldn’t prove their responsibility and they would have denied it anyway. This is not an unusual experience in London,even in the supposedly most select locations. Earlier this year,a Westminster Council report described the conditions in the House of Parliament’s thirteen restaurants as ‘appalling’.They found (among others) signs of mouse activity,duck & turkey being cooked at 50c instead of 75c and mayonnaise stored at too high a temperature. Elderly Lords,they concluded,were especially vunerable.

Presumably the Government now at least sympathises with the risks we take when eating out in London. That’s not quite the same,though,as getting the situation under control. In March,the Food Standards Agency issued an alert about 250,000 packed sandwiches they suspected had been contaminated with the listeria bacterium and then circulated to schools and hospitals in Southern England. The same month a restaurant in ChinaTown rather unwisely served dinner to sixty diners,mainly policemen and environmental officers,who subsequently all became ill. The restaurant unsurprisingly incurred a hefty fine: £60,000.

Some restaurants,aware of their clients’ concern,have open-plan kitchens where you can see your food being prepared. Even then,there is no guarantee that all the basic hygiene measures are being implemented. Far more worrying is when your meal is finally (after some delay) brought to you: The food is warmish on one side and cold on the other. You’ve no idea if whoever cooked it vaguely resembles a trained professional or was taken on the night before due to a sudden vacancy. You can’t know,either,if the food is fresh or a continuation of the previous day’s menu. Once you’ve eaten,just pay (albeit reluctantly),leave and hope for the best. Definitely resist any temptation to find out for yourself what goes on down in the basement.

It is difficult to imagine any of this happening in France,Italy,Germany or Spain. There they seem to take the art (which is how they see it) of preparing and serving a meal far more seriously. What is equally galling is that dining out in London can be painful both for your stomach and your wallet. It’s an expensive city even for the basic necessities: transport,accommodation and the weekly shopping. Going to what you hope will be a decent restaurant is not something you can do frequently unless you are well off.

It’s advisable also to check the small print on the menu,especially the rules on tips. It’s noticeable that a new phrase has started to appear: “A discretionary gratuity of 12 & half % will be added to your bill”. That’s on top of what will already be a large amount,plus the VAT. If it is ‘discretionary’ then they should consult you first,though of course they won’t. They are well aware that most customers will say nothing for fear of attracting attention. The best moment to query this extra charge is when you are about to order. It’s not really a tip at all as the people working there are unlikely to see any of it. In reality it’s another supplement which will go into the owner’s pockets. Make it clear you won’t pay it,then if you’ve been happy with the service,tip the old fashioned way:  In cash (while the boss isn’t looking) to whoever has been looking after you.

Bon Appetit!

Filed under: Healthcare, Society | Posted on August 1st, 2007 by Colin D Gordon

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