Saturday, February 10, 2007

Dinner time...


I was sitting in the downstairs dining room of Franklin's in East Dulwich, staring at my watch in no small measure of disbelief and swearing. We'd sat down an hour and half previously and in the interim we'd had some bread and I had eaten an over chilled starter of cold sirloin and pickles. That had been about an hour previous to the prolonged stream of profanity now flowing freely from my mouth. The girlfriend had eaten nothing bar the bread and had that slightly pained look that a mixture of hunger and exhaustion will bring when it's 10 o'clock on a Friday night and your dinner is nowhere in sight. Around us diners were cancelling puddings, staring at plates devoid of food and generally being a bit disgruntled. The whole restaurant was in meltdown and you could almost smell the panic coming from the kitchen.

Franklin's is a real favourite of mine; it does good British cooking simply and with flair. Bath Chaps, Chitterlings, Roast Widgeon frequently appear on the menu and regular fixtures like the Welsh Rarebit as a savoury third course and the excellent Colchester natives make it the kind of place you can happily settle in for a well earned, unhurried treat on a Friday night after a sinking a few pints. Unfortunately, this Friday the dining room turned from unhurried to horizontal. It's actually quite interesting watching an entire Friday night service fall apart, or it would be if the hunger pangs had stopped.

I've worked in plenty of restaurants, in kitchens as a dish pig, commis chef, and out front as bus boy and waiter. I know that services can frequently teeter on the edge of disaster; they can lurch from a well-oiled machine to spluttering fireball in moments with the slightest provocation. Somehow, no matter how bad it got we always pulled out of the nose dive, found our way out of the weeds, got out of the shit and dragged the whole service back on track. Sommelier punched one of the headwaiters out cold in the dining room in the middle of a busy Saturday night? No, problem. A sous chef with a cocaine habit and third degree burns? No worries at all. So actually watching a dining room collapse, the entire service grind to a halt with orders going missing and floor staff clueless as to what to do next had a grim fascination.

When the food finally arrived along with a bottle of wine on the house by way of apology, the experience did provoke a question. How long is long enough? How long should the pause be between ordering and starter? What's the ideal breather between starter and main? Main and dessert orders? Of course, it all depends on where you are and what time it is. If it's a burger then they'd better be damn quick, a fry up even quicker, basically, the less money I am spending the quicker they have to be.

On the very rare occasions that I walk into a fast food joint, if I can't get served immediately and have my food immediately then I have to walk out. The realisation of where I am hits me, swiftly followed by that weird smell and I have to scarper. In a restaurant with linen and napkins and some degree of swank and good company, I'd say fifteen or twenty minutes is the limit between ordering and my starter turning up, unless they are plying me with amuse bouche. Twenty to twenty-five minutes seems the absolute limit between starter and main. Any longer and the conversation starts to dwindle and heads start to turn looking for an approaching waiter. After that, I'm not really bothered about when the desserts and coffee turn up, unless it's too quickly of course.


cookiecrumb said...

Sounds like a reality show. Which means, you know, irreality.
If I'm not fed soon enough, I get to a point of actually losing my appetite. You don't want to be there.

bucket said...

Well I was a back waiter for some time ... a back waiter coordinates with the front waiter and then acts as the front of the house's representation in the kitchen. Each front waiter should understand their guests enough to get a feel as to how long each pause should be, and what is too long.

Each table is it's own little collection of people on their own dining adventure and the waiters have to properly time the food's orbit.

Of course in the scenario you just described above that is an impossible task.

Anonymous said...

That's really strange. Franklins is one of my favourite places and I've lost count of the times I've eaten there over the years. I hope your experience was just a one off there.