Knives and forks akimbo. Napkins scrunched into leftover soup. Diners wandering around the restaurant while on the phone.
Restaurateur Angie Giannakodakis has witnessed it all in a hospitality career that's spanned 33 years and, in her estimation, has seen her serve "four MCGs" of diners in Melbourne.
But in the past few years, Giannakodakis has noticed an upsurge in diner behaviour that's made it harder for her to deliver the kind of seamless, joyous experiences that make people fall in love with fine-dining restaurants and, along the way, give waiters the satisfaction of having served up happiness along with scallops, steak and souffle.
Giannakodakis isn't sure if it's to do with the casualisation of dining, the demise of family mealtime or a rushed click-and-eat culture, but she does know she wants to do something about it. So she's launched Restaurant School classes to teach people how to be better diners.
The first class took place on Saturday at Epocha, her graceful Carlton restaurant. At the two-hour class, participants were instructed in dining codes such as which cutlery to use (start at the outside and work in), how to hold a wine glass (by the stem, not the bowl) and how to pay the bill in a nice restaurant (at the table, not standing by the door).
Participants – including Ann Brady, a keen diner who brought Lani, her eight-year-old granddaughter – heard about chewing gum under the table (cleaning it up is a weekly job), how to set a table properly, and that it doesn't help your waiter if you stack plates.
"This is not about shaming people," Giannakodakis says. "This is about helping diners learn how restaurants work so that they can have a better experience.
"If someone doesn't know to put their knife and fork together to signal that they've finished a dish, then we have to watch them, ask them, disturb them before we can clear their plate.
"We see some customers get visibly annoyed about it, whereas 10 years ago we didn't have that issue.
"Customers stacking plates actually slows us down – we don't stack plates like you do, and it means we have to come to the table twice.
"And if we have 25 per cent of diners standing up to pay the bill, it changes our workload. You might be pouring someone's wine but you have to stop what you're doing and get the EFTPOS machine."
This extra work means service staff have less time to deliver the special touches that turn a feed into a five-star rhapsody.
"We want to nurture diners, not second-guess them or control them," Giannakodakis says.
"We want that beautiful interaction, that warm expression of humanity that can happen in a restaurant.
"If diners don't understand what we do and don't value it, then we are going to lose our restaurants."
Dining do's and don'ts
A good diner does:
- Let the restaurant know in advance if they have dietary needs or a special occasion to celebrate
- Consider their time of booking: if you'll be 'hangry' by 7pm, book dinner at 6pm, not 8.30pm
- Keep the reservation and call ahead if running late
- Wait at the door to be greeted and shown to a table
- Put knife and fork together on their plate when finished with a dish
- Ask the waiter for assistance rather than Googling unfamiliar words on a menu or looking up the wine list
- Keep the napkin in their lap then fold it neatly to the side of the plate when finished
A good diner does not:
- Push cutlery and plates to the centre of the table in order to plonk elbows in their place
- Use all the cutlery for the first dish
- Touch service staff, swear or ask a waiter what they really want to do with their life – it's hurtful to career waiters. "There's no more honourable trait than to look after a fellow human being," Giannakodakis says
- Mop up spillages with cloth napkins; instead, signal to a waiter who is better placed to deal with it
- Leave a negative online review before speaking to the restaurant to allow them to remedy the situation
To find out about future Restaurant School sessions, visit epocha.com.au or phone 03 9036 4949.