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‘We’ve changed and so have restaurants’: the new rules for dining out in Australia | Australian food and drink

Written by Javed Iqbal

The question we as diners don’t ask ourselves enough is, “Am I unreasonable?”

Unfortunately, many reliable, old-school restaurants choose to close rather than renew their leases. And can you blame them? Many of these owners claim that burnout is the problem. And what burnout means is constantly putting their health on the line by working a public-facing role while tackling rising food costs, rent increases, angry customers and a nationwide labor shortage where hospitality has 52,000 roles to fill. These numbers place hospitality as one of the top industries experiencing a labor market crisis, next to healthcare. The demand for labor is at an all-time high.

Not surprisingly, after being locked in our homes for long periods of time, we have forgotten how to eat. But what may come as a surprise is that it is a new generation of restaurant staff who also make up most of the workforce. They’re green, they’ve been thrown in the deep end, and mentorship is hard to come by.

As much as we’d like to walk out thinking that everything was just as we left it, it’s not. We have changed and so have restaurants. So how are we supposed to behave to ensure we can continue eating out tomorrow?

Empty seats at Barangaroo in Sydney
Many established restaurants are closed as hospitality faces a labor crisis. Photo: Joel Carrett/AAP

The obvious things: Book a table and read the fine print

Remember when everyone was collectively squealing about how restaurants no longer took reservations and we longed for the good old days? Well, they’re back. Thanks to the pandemic, restaurants are increasingly less likely to pack diners in if dinner turns into a super spread event, infecting their floor staffand they have to close for a week.

It has become standard practice for restaurants to ask for a credit card number to secure a reservation. If you’re sacrificing your details, you’d be foolish not to see what they can be used for—especially if you have queer friends. If you’ve agreed to be charged per person for a last-minute no-show, you shouldn’t be upset when it happens.

Communicate

Like all successful relationships, good communication leads to better experiences. Does your group have allergies? Tell the restaurant when you order. There is no way the kitchen can come up with a delicious menu for you on the fly when they are already behind, understaffed and firing the courses for every other table in the room.

Do you want to sit in a certain area because you like it? Ask when you make a reservation. Did someone suddenly get one of the million viruses around? Tell the restaurant before you show up. Are you celebrating something? Tell them! Need to be out early because you have a show? Please tell them. Are you late? You know the answer to this question.

Diners sit at tables inside a restaurant in Melbourne's China Town.
Diners at a restaurant in Melbourne’s China Town. Communication with a restaurant will lead to a better experience. Photo: Asanka Ratnayake/Getty Images

Be on time

This was true before the pandemic, but it has never been more important. If your table is rebooked for a second or even third seat and you’ve got an out time, it’s not a suggestion.

There is a flow-on effect of being late and it causes stress on the floor and in the kitchen to get your meal out faster so that people after you are not penalized for doing the right thing. The pressure to speed up a service is an action that can only be controlled by experienced staff. Newbies to the business aren’t as efficient as hospo-lives and haven’t yet developed the confidence to rush an order through the kitchen. So if you’re late, you’re all late.

You can ask when the next table is coming, but remember that when you leave your table, your table must be cleared, cleaned and reset. You can’t just play musical chairs. Having said that, the industry is hospitality and staff always try to be hospitable. So if the team reads the room correctly and can shuffle people around, they will tell you that you can stay longer. Just don’t assume it can happen every time.

Workers prepare food at Nobu Japanese restaurant in Crown Sydney
The kitchen at Nobu, Sydney. When diners arrive late, it has a flow-on effect on chefs. Photo: Joel Carrett/AAP

be patient

You know how over lockdown you reflected on your life choices and decided it was probably time to get a new job or leave your industry entirely to do what you love? Well, it happened in hospitality. Plus a large part of the international workforce went home and it is expensive and very difficult to sponsor new international workers now.

This means you will be served by fewer people, and they may never have worked in hospitality before. Everyone works a little slower, they’re a bit clumsy, they learn on the job and are prone to making a mistake or two. Please be kind and understanding. It’s not the end of the world if your drink takes a few minutes longer than everyone else’s – at worst, just remind your server. I guarantee you they will apologize profusely. If you scare off the next generation, who will be there to serve you next week?

Meet up

It pains me to write this, but after talking to a few restaurant owners they all mentioned an overwhelming number of no-shows. Even when confirmation texts and emails have been sent and confirmed. One owner told me he texted someone half an hour after their table was supposed to arrive and received the response, “Nah, brah, not coming. GF’s not feeling it.” After warning the customer that they would be charged to cover the minimum cost of labor and wasted food, the owner discovered that the card was already depleted. Food waste is agonizing for any restaurateur, especially when costs rise – and they’ve already prepared it for you to eat. If you don’t show up, you’re burning someone else’s money.

Workers clean tables for outdoor dining
Outdoor tables at Sambandha Nepalese restaurant in Auburn, Sydney. Remember that staff have limited time to turn the tables between meetings. Photo: Joel Carrett/EPA

But what if the experience was truly awful?

We’ve all been here. It’s an off night for the front and back of the house. The bar couldn’t get your drinks right. You stood out in the cold waiting for your table to turn (see point three). Service was absent. Cold food arrived hot and hot food arrived cold. It took forever to pay and you felt like you were left to die in the corner.

Raised by Wolves cover
Raised by Wolves, by Jess Ho. Photo: Affirm Press

Management should be able to see this and it will hurt inside to see your table have a sub-par experience. If they don’t put out a million fires, they will most likely approach your table, apologize, take your feedback, and either get you some drinks or send dessert to your table. If you can give them feedback on the spot, don’t make a scene. If management is going down with the ship, try calling in instead of yelling. Email or call the restaurant to let them know about your experience. Outline what went wrong in the most graceful way possible. They can always track down your table to verify your story, use your feedback to retrain the staff, and most likely invite you back to eat at them. If there’s one thing a restaurant wants, it’s to prove to you that they can do better.

Businesses have been struggling to survive Covid, give them a chance to change your mind before venting your frustrations on Google.

About the author

Javed Iqbal

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