Diners have forgotten their table manners and the restaurant industry is not happy. Melbourne restaurateur Angie Giannakodakis has become so frustrated with "poorly trained" patrons, in fact, she has started a weekend school for diners on how to behave in a restaurant. Sydney chef Attila Yilmaz made national headlines last month for banning iPads at his Canterbury eatery and a former Good Food Guide sommelier of the year has taken to dropping nonsense terms into conversation to gauge whether customers are listening.
"The big problem, for me, is customers photographing food," says Tim Watkins of two-hatted Sydney restaurant Automata. "It's an action that's become ingrained in people's DNA. As soon as food lands in front of them, the phone camera comes out. I work in a restaurant where we talk about each dish when we serve it. I've started slipping in things like 'purple elephant' and 'red rhinoceros' into conversation just to see if anybody has noticed that I am talking to them."
Watkins says technology has brought a new level of disconnect and rudeness in restaurants. "There have always been rude people who've had too many drinks, but these days it's often genuinely nice people who don't realise what they're doing."
"We have noticed in recent years that patrons do not know how to behave in our restaurant," says Giannakodakis, co-owner and maitre'd of Carlton's Epocha, who first came to prominence for the immaculate service she delivered at George Calombaris's Press Club. "People arrive and push all the settings around the table, they are stacking plates when they're finished and putting their napkin onto the plate between courses," she says.
"Then there is the attitude. People are talking down to the staff and treating them in a way I have not seen before."
We've had iPads set up playing everything from Married at First Sight to Friday night football.Attila Yilmaz.
Giannakodakis has initiated a customer training course to address the situation. "We want people to enjoy the dining experience," she says with a note of exasperation in her voice. "Restaurant service is a formula. Everything we do has been done with the customer in mind. We create this fantasy world where people can experience this special place where we show what looking after people is all about.
"When people move cutlery about there is no space for waitstaff to put plates down," she says. "People stack plates with knives sticking out. That is an occupational health and safety issue. There is a reason why we do everything. Everything. When people try to change the service to suit what they want, it has repercussions that effect everyone in the team."
Beechworth chef Michael Ryan from Provenance agrees to a point. "Most guests know how to dine," says the multi-hatted chef. "But I am now seeing diners using every piece of cutlery to eat bread," he says. "Once upon a time everyone used to know how to use cutlery. Now they are cutting the bread with a knife and fork."
Ryan suffered the ignominy last year of having a diner leave a review on a website complaining that his restaurant, which specialises in Japanese-influenced contemporary cuisine, did not serve chicken nuggets. When this is mentioned he laughs it off but adds, "People have become focused on the food and don't look at the other elements that go into making the experience of dining out so special. I think, however, that a school for diners is a step too far."
Pazar Food Collective owner Attila Yilmaz certainly believes a few of his customers could benefit from a crash course in how to dine. The cop-turned-chef became a topic of water cooler conversation last month when, at his casual suburban restaurant, he banned iPads, colouring books, crayons and building blocks that "made the table look like an arts and craft centre".
"On the night I introduced the ban, we had one group with kids draw all over the table and a customer smuggling in Nando's. Another diner asked to bring in hot chips from the takeaway across the road when I told them we don't serve fries, and at the end of service I found fresh chewing gum under a table. We're always finding chewing gum and I don't understand why. We have serviettes."
Pazar's iPad ban had been brewing slowly. "We have communal tables and if a group of adults has travelled to us for a night out and have to put up with Peppa Pig blaring next to them, it's not OK. One night I counted 18 devices in the front dining room, which only seats 65. The place was glowing with screens."
Adults are actually the worst offenders on iPads in the restaurant, says Yilmaz. "We've had iPads set up playing everything from Married at First Sight to Friday night football. When there's bunch of blokes yelling at an iPad because they don't like a referee's decision, it's highly disturbing for everyone else in the room."
Yilmaz says Pazar has "been busier then ever" since the ban. "Parents are high-fiving us for making more families engage with each other at dinner. If we lose customers, they're not the customers I want anyway. They're people using the restaurant as an extension of their lounge room."
Another type of customer Yilmaz doesn't want see in Pazar is the social media food "influencer" (formerly known as a food blogger until Instagram came along).
"Influencers can f--- right off," he says. "They contact us all the time wanting a free meal, which we would never give them. Regardless, they still visit the restaurant and stand on chairs to get the perfect photo."
For influencers, a polished concrete floor can be a better surface for creating premium content than a shiny table. Watkins discovered this at Automata.
"When I saw a guy place a dish on the floor to photograph it I had to say, 'All right, mate – that's too much'," says the sommelier. "I said 'There's people here preparing this food all day and you're not even eating it. You're not showing any respect'."
Watkins says real-time Instagram stories are the new social media format of choice for many diners. "They're posting while they're eating because they want their followers to see, at that actual moment, what they're doing. Not 20 minutes later or when they get home – it needs to be then and now."
"They post a story and straight away they're back down the rabbit hole looking at other people's photos on their phone. I've noticed a lot of customers walking out of the restaurant feeling as if they've had a mediocre experience and I'm like 'Dude, we did everything that we could have done for you to have a great time but you weren't engaged'. As opposed to going to a concert or movie where you can sit back and let the show happen, the interactive element of going to a restaurant is vitally important to the quality of the experience."
"Dining out is magical," says Sydney restaurateur Maurice Terzini. The effusive food identity has had nearly 20 successful businesses over his three-decade career, including Bondi's renowned Icebergs Dining Room and Bar. He too has noticed a change.
"There is an arrogance that I haven't seen before," he says. "Everyone has an opinion about food now. They watch TV food shows and come in here and use language like you find on social media. 'This is disgusting and unacceptable'," he says imitating a disgruntled client. "Talk to us honestly and we can fix the problem. But when you talk to front-of-house people like that you are making it difficult for us to help you."
Yilmaz says he receives a lot of abuse from customers booked in for an early dinner who are asked to leave their table at 8pm to make way for the next group of guests.
"People agree to the seating terms at the time of booking and we also have a conversation at the door to let them know the table is rebooked for later in the evening. Geez, I get some backlash about it though. I'm called a money-grabber on a regular basis. The general public doesn't realise that we're not just selling food, we're selling seats. Each seat needs to generate a certain amount of revenue a night for us to be profitable. You don't hang out in a cinema's gold class lounge drinking wine after the movie's finished. A restaurant seat is no different."
Customers over-staying their welcome has always been an issue, says Jeremy Courmadias, general manager of the Fink Group, which counts Bennelong, Quay and Otto in its restaurant portfolio.
The restaurant needs to offer solutions such as moving people to the bar so they can continue on if that's what they want to do, he says. "It's about taking responsibility instead of saying, 'Here's the bill, see you later'. Sometimes people are running late for reasons out of their control and you have to be agile.
"The flipside of people not leaving is customers who want two or three courses but they also need to be in and out of the restaurant in less than an hour. Everyone is busier and under pressure to get back to the office these days, but often that isn't communicated when they arrive at the venue. An hour into lunch we hear 'Where's my dessert? I need to leave!'."
"The responsibility of the restaurant is to set the boundaries," says Terzini. "We do this by the way we talk to guests. I am not sure that I agree with lecturing people. The customer should be able to have fun. You can spray champagne around the room and I will probably join you.
"But, put your feet on the chairs or move the tables around…" he pauses without finishing the sentence. "Ronnie Di Stasio taught me a long time ago," he says, referring to the Melbourne restaurant identity, "that sometimes it is just as important to sack your bad customers as it is to sack bad staff."