At Pearl Liang, in the lower concourse of Paddington Central, west London, the Chinese waiter could not have been friendlier as he took our order – without pen and paper – for salt and pepper bean curd, Shanghai dumplings, soft shell crab, stewed pork belly and many other dishes, before asking which size of glass we wanted our Pinot Noir served in.
The service was similarly engaging at Alisan, the renowned dim sum restaurant that sits in a modern glass building on the corner of Engineers Way, just 300m from Wembley Stadium. As I can vouch from bitter experience, the food can be far more exciting than the football. And particularly so before a match when sea bass congee, yam croquettes with scallops, pak choy buns, prawn and bean curd cheung fun and, for those who can take the heat, diced tripe with chilli are just a few of the dishes on offer.
This style contrasted markedly with what we have come to accept as the norm in many Chinese restaurants, and which we experienced the other day at the Princess Garden, close to Selfridges. On walking past an unmanned reception desk, we found our inquiry addressed to the man behind the empty bar met by a shrug of the shoulders and a tilt of the head towards the restaurant. There we stood for several minutes as the waiting staff tried to look through us, before announcing “15 to 20 minutes” until they could seat us. We decided not to put them to the bother.
Ever since 1976, when I was first introduced to the most authentic Chinese food in Taipei, I have always had the impression that there are as many differing approaches to service in Chinese restaurants as there are dim sum dishes on their menus. It is also almost impossible to predict how one will be treated. In Beijing I have been made extremely welcome despite being the only Englishman among a table of Americans – and been on the sharp end of things alongside two Mandarin speakers
To discover why, I retraced the steps of my original Asian sortie 36 years ago to Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing – although, this time, only by email and phone.
Paulo Pong, a wine-merchant-turned-restaurateur in Hong Kong – with whom I have shared several bowls of beef noodles at Kau Kee, Central, each well prepared and equally brusquely served – offered one explanation. Until recently, he said, as in the UK, the waiting profession has not been highly respected in China, prompting Chinese waiters, in turn, not to respect their diners. And although a service charge will be added, it may end up with the restaurateur.
Pong believes that the situation is gradually improving because of the impact of bloggers who, in Hong Kong and Singapore at any rate, appear to be more obsessed with food than their counterparts anywhere else in the world. And with the increasing number of restaurant openings, particularly at the more expensive end, he believes that the issue of service is finally being addressed.
For Michael Peng, of the excellent Hunan restaurant in Pimlico, part of the problem is that Chinese is a far more direct language than English. He is constantly reminding his staff to add a thank you, and to smile or make eye contact, to ensure that directness is never misinterpreted as rudeness.
He also believes that Chinese restaurateurs start with a professional disadvantage because they want to hire Chinese staff, which, in turn, means that their staff must have residence permits. Their only option, in many cases, is to hire overseas Chinese students, most of whom are young and inexperienced and have no real desire to be working in restaurants other than to pay the rent.
Peng believes that one answer lies in bringing together a mixture of eastern and western waiting staff. Australian restaurateur Michelle Garnaut has put this into practice at her restaurants – Mon the Bund in Shanghai and Capital M in Beijing – where she is assisted by Espen Harbitz, her Norwegian general manager.
The widely travelled Garnaut believes waiting staff in China are as professional and pleasant as anywhere, and that with more hospitality schools across the region, this situation can only continue to improve – let’s hope in The Year of the Dragon.
More columns at www.ft.com/lander
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