18 | squaremeal.co.uk
When I have a bad meal
in a restaurant, I feel as
if I've wasted my money
and, even worse, my
time. I feel that I've been
cheated. Whether it's
soaking up the lack of atmosphere, sucking
up rude service, attempting to swallow
inedible food, or straining to hear what my
companion is shouting, I wish that I were
spending my time and money somewhere
better. I feel that I've been robbed of a
more rewarding experience.
I'm aware that this sounds like the worst
kind of rst-world problem, but it turns out
that mine is a fairly mild reaction to a dud
night out. In February, academics at Stanford
University revealed the results of their
research into 1 million negative restaurant
reviews posted online. They concluded that
the language people use to describe a bad
meal is similar to that used by survivors
of terrorist atrocities talking about their
experiences. According to the academics, a
bad meal is a bona de traumatic event.
It's hard not to greet some of the ndings
with at least one raised eyebrow, but
something that very much rang true for me
is that many of the negative reviews didn't
focus on poor food, but on the way that
diners were treated by restaurant sta . If hell
is other people, then rude waiters can look
forward to employment in the afterlife as
devils stoking the ery ames.
It made me think about my own emotional
reactions to restaurant employees. That
impotent rage as I try and fail to catch a
waiter's attention. The frustration when
conversation is constantly interrupted by
'is everything OK with your meal?' And the
anger ebbing into resignation during the
20-minute wait for the bill, as the prospect of
getting to bed at a reasonable hour recedes
like the last tube disappearing down the tracks.
My personal restaurant hell, however, is
usually induced by my fellow diners. I recently
went to a gastropub in Cumbria for a family
lunch. Everything was spot on, from the
deliciousness of the food and the charm
of the waiters to the clever update of the
It would have been perfect had it not been
for the screaming kids at the other end of
the dining room. I'd been looking forward
to the meal, and this badly behaved family
was spoiling it; I felt personally a ronted.
My memory of the lunch is dominated by
my inching every time the air was rent
by a scream. Looking back, maybe it was a
traumatic experience after all.
Our emotional reaction to a meal is
dependent on our expectations being met.
But those expectations are increasingly high.
These days we know about a restaurant's
opening months in advance; we can see
artist's impressions of the interior design and
photos of test dishes on Twitter. The sense
of anticipation is only heightened by launch
dates being delayed.
Alas, the reality can be underwhelming.
Even when a new restaurant is pretty decent,
I can be left disappointed that I haven't
had as good a meal as those people who
have reported it to be the best thing since
sliced bread. Rather than trusting my own
judgement, I feel as if I've missed out.
But maybe our reactions need a little
re-programming. I'm all for getting excited
about new restaurants: that's one of the
things that makes living in London so thrilling.
But the American research revealed some
other interesting ways that people react to
restaurants. For instance, diners describe the
food at high-end establishments in overtly
sexual terms such as 'orgasmic', while less
expensive restaurants attract words such
as 'addictive', putting food on a par with
satisfying a guilty craving. Calm down, dears,
I want to say: it's just a meal.
Except that it's not. A restaurant should
be our happy place, somewhere we go to
satisfy our emotional needs: good food and
drink enjoyed in good company. The best
things in life are rarely free, but a restaurant
should add to the richness of life, not leave
us feeling we've been robbed.
TAKE ME TO MY HAPPY PLACE...
It's impossible not to descend the stairs
without smiling in anticipation at the
sublime experience to come
The River Café
A meal in the garden here o ers London's
ultimate summer feel-good factor
A table for one, surrounded by the
weekend papers and piles of dim sum, is
my idea of me-time bliss
IF HELL IS OTHER PEOPLE, THEN RUDE WAITERS CAN
LOOK FORWARD TO EMPLOYMENT IN THE AFTERLIFE
AS DEVILS STOKING THE FIERY FLAMES
Rude waiters, bad food, noisy diners - hardly the stu� of posttraumatic
shock. But a disappointing meal can unleash all sorts
of unexpected feelings, says Square Meal's editor WORDS BEN MCCORMACK
food for thought
ILLUSTRATION: GEO PARKIN