March 14, 2014 6:40 pm

Service with a scowl

‘London’s rudest restaurant is a badge of distinction – an opportunity to rise above the crowd’
illustration by Lucas Varela of poor restaurant service©Lucas Varela

I can’t remember exactly why I stopped going to the rudest restaurant in London but the one thing I am sure of is that it wasn’t because of the service.

Anyone who has ever visited the Wong Kei in London’s Chinatown has already guessed the identity of the establishment in question. Indeed, if you were to google the phrase “rudest restaurant in London”, every entry on the first page of search results will be about the Wong Kei. The discourtesy of the waiters was the stuff of legend; diners were shouted at and frequently f-bombed. Newcomers had barely crossed the threshold before they were rudely ordered “upstairs”. One friend who suggested he had been short-changed was told to leave, with the warning “next time I chop you up, put you in soup”. A request to pull two tables together was met with the suggestion that we “f*** off to the Chueng Cheng Ku”, a rival restaurant a few doors down. There was nothing mannered about this; the staff really were that rude.

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Robert Shrimsley

Thus it was with a sense of immense loss that I read that the Wong Kei’s new manager is promising improved service (following a frankly imperceptible refurb) and looking to shed his establishment’s uncivil reputation. Aside from the loss of character, I feel a personal (albeit little-exercised) stake in a joint that feels synonymous with my youth. Second only to the university itself, it is the place I most associate with my student days. Close to the college campus, the Wong Kei was cavernous, canteen-like and cheap; one could enjoy a large bowl of wonton noodle soup for well under £5 and the jasmine tea came free. It was lazy afternoon laughter with a college friend; it was a hurried meal on a date with my now wife before a Saturday-night movie. All that, and the frisson that came with anticipation of a moment of spectacular and hilarious discourtesy. While value mattered, it was undoubtedly the experience – the cabaret of incivility – that retained our loyalty.

So much of my history, so many of my old haunts have gone that it is always reassuring to see the Wong Kei unchanged and still thriving.

It is one of the hangouts to which I could still take the spawn and bore them with stories about when their parents were dating. (Seriously, you try this game: 10 points for every eye-roll you induce. I’m thinking of turning it into an app and calling it Angry Brats.)

Naturally enough then, I took the news that discourtesy might be off the menu very badly. Aside from the violence done to my wallows in nostalgia, it feels like a monumental business mistake. Take away the “rudest restaurant” tag and it is just another so-so eatery in the middle of Chinatown. London’s rudest restaurant is a badge of distinction – an opportunity to rise above the crowd. It is the kind of “real” experience towards which tourists flock. Instead of trying to lose the reputation, surely a shrewd owner would put the words in large letters over the door. It is not as if the place was losing trade.

Once, perhaps, the rudeness would have provoked outrage. But turn it into a selling point and it excuses any behaviour and repudiates any customer anger. This, after all, is London’s rudest restaurant, so enjoy the show or f*** off to the Chueng Cheng Ku.

My last visit was with my wife – we went on a whim about three years ago. Even then, the service was already showing signs of rising to the merely brusque, while the food was less appetising than we remembered. Perhaps it had deteriorated; perhaps it was never meant for the more well-heeled and refined tastes of middle-age. Or perhaps without the raucous rudeness, we simply saw it for the ordinary joint it was.

I remember now why we stopped going. It was not the desire for better food that comes with increased affluence. No, the catalyst came when one of our crowd witnessed an assault and agreed to give evidence on the restaurant’s behalf if it came to trial. From then on, the staff were cheerful, obliging and always made a fuss of him when we went in. Within a few weeks we had indeed f***ed off to the Chueng Cheng Ku.

robert.shrimsley@ft.com; Twitter: @robertshrimsley
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