sarah walton

Service With A Grunt: Par for Course in UAE

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I’m a sucker.

I tip everybody. I tip cab drivers who drive over the speed limit. I tip hairdressers who charge me too much. I tip the manicurist who keeps on telling me I have old-lady-hands and weird feet. I tip the barrista who burns my milk, and I tip the waiter who gives me service that stinks like a monkey’s armpit.

And I know why I do it. I know how much these people hate their jobs. The pay is abysmal. The work unrewarding. There is no chance of promotion. At least that’s what I keep telling myself as I put in a few extra dirhams for a taxi driver who made me carsick, or the waiter who brought me the wrong meal, again.

The other reason I do it is because once upon a time, I worked a job that paid tuppence and I relied on the tips for a life. Tips were my after-work drinks, my trips to the cinema, and then my books for university and even my mortgage for my first tiny matchbox flat. They were the things that sent my life from work-sleep-work-sleep-work-sleep to work-play-study-invest-sleep. They turned my groundhog day life into something that was a steppingstone to a better life, and not only that, I can even look back on it now and say “Those were the days”.

So, I would smile. I would bow, I would grovel, I would pander to absurd requests. I would be sweet in the face of complete arseholery and ignorance. I would meet groping and lechery with politeness, sexism with a smile and disgusting manners with a blind eye. I would dodge abuse from chefs who had forgotten to cook something I asked for. I would take back ‘corked’ wine that wasn’t corked. I would apologise for things that weren’t my fault.

And despite all that, I would still make gorgeous lattes, remember who ordered what without having to write it all down and repeat it twice, get the food to the table on time, deliver the children’s menus and even manage to fend of potential faff-ups with the odd plate of free olives or glass of house vino. And I never, ever spat in anyone’s food.

It was hard work, but I got tipped, and well. I deserved it. I had to put it in the pot of course, and each night 90% of the waiting team would inwardly groan as the 10% who didn’t deserve tips put in nothing to split. But we’d share and be grateful. It was a charming way to measure the pride in our work, because that’s how it goes back home – if you deserve it, you get a tip. If you don’t, then you don’t. There’s always misers of course, but they’re a dying breed fortunately.

So why is it so different over here? What’s it going to take to get a little pride in delivery? I’m sorry, I know I sound like a total ponce. But I’ve put in my own hard yards, and now that it’s my turn to sit on the other side of table, I’m being dished up sour grapes. And so I’ve decided. The buck stops here. Tips no more.

There are three types of bad service that really get my goat, and you see them all here, sometimes all in the same venue, or even in the same person. Mostly here, I see unskilled service. Either someone has lied on their resume, or the owner thinks they can throw people into service with no training. There will plenty of waiters – too many even, running around like crazy but achieving very little. You will wait for a table until somebody decides they have the authority to seat you. That somebody will probably be you.

You will probably get the lunch menu at dinner time. The staff don’t know what’s on the menu, so any questions asked will be met with blank stares. You won’t find out about any specials until you have already ordered. Your coffee will be both boiled and burned, your wine oxidized, and your juice served in a dirty glass. Meals will arrive at different times, and probably at the table next to you before they reach your own. Waiters will appear both meek and stressed, and it will be hard not to feel sorry for them.

You will probably never see the same one at your table twice though – they’re too busy trying to figure out what they are supposed to be doing. When you receive the bill from an obsequious manager who seems to have appeared out of thin air just at the time money is required, you will weigh the cost with the cons and wonder why you didn’t just cook your own dinner.

The next most common is negligent service. You book a table for two, they set it for four. You are seated and wait for five minutes before you finally ask for the menu. You ask for the drinks menu, because they forgot to bring it. You ask again. It’s 25 minutes before you have a glass of water in front of you. You’re starving. You have to call the waiter over to get them to take the order. They take your food order. They forget your bottle of wine. You ask for it. You ask for it again. They don’t bring any bread. The food arrives before the bottle of wine, and even though there’s only two of you, and the waiter had to fetch his notepad to write down your order, he can’t figure out who ordered what.

One of them is wrong anyway and has to be sent back. The correct one arrives as soon as the other meal is cold.You ask for the wine again. He smiles and walks away. You finish your meal and someone else brings the wine. Your waiter comes up and asks if everything is OK. He ignores the empty plates and walks away. All floor staff suddenly disappear. You pour your own wine. You’ve run out of water. Finally a bemused busboy wanders out and every single diner grabs him for something or other. You ask for your bill. You wait ten minutes and the wait staff appear again. You ask for the bill again. And again. It arrives and it’s wrong. It takes ten minutes more to get he right one. It has a survey card inside and you fill it out with a whole heap of ticks in the “below average” boxes. As you leave, you see the waiter throw it in the bin with a shrug. You will leave wondering why you paid for so little care and how come you didn’t just cook your own dinner.

Lastly, there is arrogant service. This can range from a cute and actually welcome pomposity through to some sadistic form of abuse, making you wonder who is actually being paid for the privilege. It all depends on the intensity, and the skill-set behind the veil of conceit. It’s expedient to have a waiter who knows what they are doing, and ever so gently takes the wheel, driving the diners through the best possible experience. It’s another thing altogether to be sneered at, ignored, belittled and emotionally slapped around by a snooty little upstart who severely needs to be dealt the hard hand of discipline.

Waiters will be attractive, or think they are attractive. They will never address you nicely or call you ‘sir’ or ‘madam’ unless it is accompanied by a snarl. You will be ushered to your table, offered the “still or sparkling?” then ignored. Waiters will wander around appearing to check on tables, but in fact avoid any eye-contact with diners whatsoever. Corked wine will be your fault, and may even be refused exchange. Meat over-cooked or undercooked likewise is your problem – you should not have the audacity to order it any way other than the chef likes to cook it.

Anything that messes with their routine will be met with contempt. Everything will take a remarkably long time to arrive, except of course the bill. It will probably have something wrong with it, but that will be your fault too. The bill-fold will be checked for a tip as you stand up to leave, and whether or not you receive a perfunctuary “Come again,” or a boot on the backside will be dependant on the amount left in there. Either way, you will leave with your tail between your legs, wondering why you didn’t just cook your own dinner and ask your husband to yell at you.

I got all three forms of bad service in a lunch on Sadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi last weekend. It was just enough to make us complain between ourselves but begrudgingly hand over the payment. We won’t be back – no matter how turquoise that water was and how tender that (70 AED) beetroot cured salmon was. It’s just not worth it. That lunch was the straw that broke this camel’s back. If 377 room five star hotels can’t train their staff, supervise and organize them, and stipulate that they must be polite to customers then I don’t know what hospitality in the UAE is coming to .

The greatest issue over here is that there is no real way to complain. There is no sense at all in taking it up with the staff. The untrained ones will probably cry, the negligent ones forget, and the rude ones will ignore your comments. The management obviously don’t see a problem, or see the problem but have no inclination or opportunity to fix it. The owners are most likely absent. You can fill out a survey card, but it will be binned or framed depending on your response – very rarely reflected and acted upon. You could talk with your feet, and never return. But someone will. They may be a new resident or a tourist, but unless the health department shuts them down, UAE restaurants, even the terrible ones, have this remarkable resilience – they just stay open. You could always blast them on Trip Advisor or Time Out. But you can be guaranteed that most readers will immediately place you in the ‘holier than thou’ slot of dining crazies.

The other problem is that we keep forgiving the venues, when we really should be forgiving staff and holding a grudge against the management. We consider the lack of part time work contracts, visa stipulations and charges, racism that seems to deem that only citizens of developing countries can perform certain jobs, a culture that believes that ‘unskilled’ work (which actually requires skills) is allowed to be unworthy. We get angry at ourselves for getting annoyed, because over here, it’s blatantly obvious that life isn’t fair, and if you have the money to sit in the dining chair, then you don’t have the right to complain about anything, particularly how somebody who has a terrible life treats you.

So, my solution is to name the places where we get great service. A couple of restaurants I have reviewed as just good rather than excellent could in fact be Dubai’s best value dining experiences. It’s because someone actually serves you what you pay for. Food is the easy part. What managers need to focus on is that stress, discomfort, embarrassment and confusion are all supposed to be missing from service – otherwise we might as well tackle the cooking and the cleanup at home.

So, finally a big pat on the back for La Petite Maison and Zuma, who have the most consistent good service in Dubai in not only my own opinion, but many other residents. Waiters are in the main, efficient, knowledgeable and friendly. For a little left of field, try Hoi An at the Shangri La, where you get old-school British colony style subservience mixed with a little modern pomp, by considerate and super efficient Vietnamese waiters.

I’d love it if you could add your own suggestions in the comments. I don’t care what level of dining it is – whether it’s shawarma with a smile or caviar with a foot rub. I promise I’ll make any effort to go where you send me, because I’m going to start feeling the bad karma of not tipping soon…

P.S For those who need to know, tipping in UAE restaurants (barring fast-food chains) is not required, but is expected. Until this day, I would tip 10% for average service, 5% for bad and 15% for good, with a 150AED ceiling on tips per couple. I’m at the generous end of normal. Or at least I was…

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