WHEN I was a student of about 19, I worked part-time at a restaurant in Queen Victoria Street just opposite the Company's Garden. The Kaapse Tafel was near the old Supreme Court and the erstwhile Dutch Reformed Church synod hall.
The lunch customers were mostly sober-minded dominees and lawyers, the background music was Mimi Coertse or Gé Korsten. People talked softly over plates of bobotie or tomato stew.
One day I saw a big old Jaguar parking outside. A middle-aged man and woman entered and I showed them to a table. They looked well-groomed; money was clearly not an issue.
Both of them spoke with polished British accents. He was short and grey, she tall and blonde. After that, they came more often. One day, when most people had already left, he called me over.
They lived in Hout Bay, he told me. On a horse farm. I could imagine him neighing. Some of the people in Hout Bay start resembling their horses, just like some people resemble their dogs.
Would I like to visit them? They wanted a ménage à trois. Would I play along? I came from a conservative Afrikaans school, so I didn't even know what that meant.
He wanted to rumpy-pumpy with me and she would look on. I could imagine her peeping at us with a whip, dressed in tight ankle pants and boots. Outside, the horses would be restless and smell rain.
Somewhat bewildered, I politely said no. I never saw them again. Who would have thought, such elegant people. Only human, with needs; don't judge. The lesson: never judge a banana by its peel.
Revenge is a cold pot of soup
I had a friend in my youth who owned Spur restaurants. Stinking rich. If he took you out for dinner, he had the annoying habit of tearing a R20 note (today probably R200) in two and warning the shocked waiter he would only get the other half if his service was good. As common as they come.
The late gourmet chef Topsi Venter told me one day about difficult customers at her restaurant in Hatfield Street, Cape Town. The place was full and one night a man asked for a table for two.
She answered that the restaurant was full. “Do you know who I am?” he shouted. “If you don't know,” she said, “then I don’t either.”
She made fresh soup every day, and one hot summer evening she made a cold tomato soup with basil which she'd picked in her garden early that morning.
A man who'd ordered it snapped his fingers and called her over. There is no basil in the soup, he said. She assured him there was, she had picked it herself.
But he went on and on until she couldn't take it any more. She walked to the fridge, took out the soup, walked over to his table with the pot and poured it over him.
He threatened to call the police but the male waiters kicked him out.
There was a famous chef at a steakhouse in Sea Point in the nineties. I won't mention the name of the place, maybe he is still alive. If you dared to complain about his food, that your meat might be overcooked or too rare, he had a fit of rage and chased you out with a cleaver. Don't think that put people off; the place was packed every night.
There is also an extremely popular steakhouse on Voortrekker Road in Parow where I have eaten a few times and would never dare to complain. The man chops his meat with a vengeance; he is as big as Eben Etzebeth and glares at you. Something tells me to keep my trap shut.
Tip system is broken
With these memories, and after reading an article in The Guardian, I went to talk to managers and waiters, notebook in hand. They all wanted to remain anonymous, for obvious reasons. I give them pseudonyms.
Pietman is young and has finished university. He works at a famous steakhouse on the Atlantic coast. He says many customers think he is a manager and not a waiter because he is white.
His biggest irritations include customers who cannot say thank you, even if it takes so little effort. Also, customers who enter as if they are walking into someone's home. Certain restaurants work with systems and some are fully booked five days in advance, which means tables may not be available. Some guests will just rush in and walk straight to a table.
Other guests cannot take “no" for an answer if, for example, certain items are not on the menu or there is no table available. He gets the feeling many South Africans of all races are quite entitled.
Then there are clients who are not happy with the music in a restaurant — it's not a club where you can give the DJ a request. Most restaurants use an internal music channel that even the management cannot change.
Pietman also has a problem with guests who don't comprehend the tip system. “I was raised in a middle-class family and was told that you tip your waiter 10%, regardless of the type of service.
“A waiter in South Africa earns around R25 an hour (the minimum wage is R25.42). Most shifts last seven hours, which works out to around R175 for a day's work. Also, most restaurants take 10% of whatever the waiter earns from tips.
“The question is whether the 10% tip theory is fair in the light of the type of service a waiter provides — they are basically your personal butler for three hours or more. I don't really understand where it originated but I feel we will have to look at the tipping system differently.
“I am blessed because I work in a restaurant where the items on the menu can be expensive, which means according to the 10% tip theory my tip will work out higher than that of, say, a waiter working at a Spur or a Wimpy. Those waiters basically earn peanuts and they and I provide the same service.
“Moreover, most overseas guests think the tip is included in the bill, which means they don't tip. I feel very strongly that the Department of Tourism should make a greater effort in advertising the tipping system in South Africa."
Give us tapas!
The manager of a Rondebosch steakhouse, Tracey, told me that a man and his friends walked in the other day and insisted on tapas. Tapas! It's a steakhouse, it's not on the menu. He continued to complain until they ignored him.
Then there are people who reserve a large table for 1pm because there is a cheap special from 1pm to 4pm. Then they arrive at 3.45pm and order it quickly. They have a good time, drink wine, get drunk, and when the new bookings arrive at 6pm they refuse to budge.
In Kloof Street, Abdul tells me he is amazed by people walking straight up to a reserved table despite the notice displaying the word RESERVED.
It's usually men, who become upset and grumble if you send them to another table. Oh, and if there is a dirty table where people have just finished eating, many people will dart straight to that one.
It's mainly a pizza and pasta restaurant with lots of complicated and original Italian dishes with different ingredients. Some customers ask them more than 20 questions about anything and everything. Meanwhile, other tables are waiting, and after long explanations they order the simplest dish: spaghetti bolognaise.
Recently, someone on Tripadvisor complained about their spaghetti carbonara. When the chef hit back at the post and asked why he didn't complain when he was there, he continued to moan. She simply took the dish off the menu.
Simba works in a fashionable coffee bar in Newlands where the guests look like models and work on laptops all the time. This makes him angry, because sometimes they occupy one table all day and he gets no other tip. They order breakfast and coffee and stare at their screens all day.
Another thing that upsets him is that there is always a maître d' at the front door who greets customers and takes them to a table. But no, people just walk in, without greeting, and find a table themselves. When the place is full, they come back with their tails between their legs and ask for help from the very person they ignored.
He says it mostly happens with black maîtres d'. If the customers are white, they often look through you.
I think back to my former days of waitering when I often served Anton Rupert.
If he wanted to hire a new potential employee, he kept a close eye on that person. If he poured salt on his food before tasting it, it was a sign: that person did not take well-informed decisions. The owner told me this, but I wonder if I should take it with a pinch of salt.
Well, enjoy your meal, but remember: take it easy with the salt and remember that your waiter is only human too.
♦ VWB ♦
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