Last Thursday, I got out of the office around 8pm and was persuaded by a colleague that we should go for a curry. Our hotel is only a short walk from Swindon’s old town and after six months we know the area reasonably well. We chose a trusted Indian restaurant, and headed there.
On the way whilst passing a pub, I had a sudden urge to nip in and have a decent pint. I dodged through the door and my colleague (and friend) did a u-turn, bashed into the door I hadn’t held open long enough for him, and finally made his way to the bar.
Several real ales were on tap. We made a brave choice and awaited a refreshing drink. What appeared was especially cloudy and did not seem to be clearing; we picked up the first pint and found it failed the fingers test (we could only see the shadow of fingers through the glass, not the fingers properly). The manager/landlord appeared, ignored us completely, drank half of one of the pints, pronounced it fine and left – still without speaking to us or looking at us. Nice. So we left.
A better pub
The pub next to our destination restaurant had no real ales, so we went for a bit of a wander. Found a nice little place on a backstreet with great staff who pulled an excellent couple of pints for us; not a cloud to be seen within a few seconds of being placed on the bar. We so enjoyed the drinks, that we went for a second. I got one, but my friend had to wait for a switchover of barrels. When we got back to our drinking positions, we realised that his pint was still a little cloudy (not anywhere near as much as in the previous pub) but before we had time to think about it properly, we were called over by one of the ladies behind the bar who was already pulling a replacement pint for us. An incredible contrast in customer service between two pubs within a short walk of each other.
The fatal mistake
We stopped at the two pints. Time was getting on a bit and we were hungry but we (well, mostly me) made the fatal mistake of not heading for our original choice of restaurant but chose to head for a now closer road that we knew had several good restaurants on it. However, as I was in a slightly playful mood, I aimed for a restaurant that I and all of my colleagues had chosen to ignore over the last six months or so on the grounds that it always seemed to be pretty much empty (even though it looked nice). My friend tried to persuade me against going into this place but I went for it anyway thinking we really should give it a try as we had no real evidence that the place was poor. We went in expecting the food not to be great but prepared to give it a go.
The waiter (we found out later that he was the owner) greeted us in a friendly way and we told him that it was our first time there, that we ate in the area regularly and that we thought it was time we gave the place a go. We said we needed the chef to give it a really good go.
Not a good start
It was my turn to choose once the Kingfisher beers and popadoms had arrived and I went for a lot of food including starters. I ordered an Aloo chop for my friend. This is basically potato shaped like a chop and with a light coating of the chef’s choice. I went for soup. I ordered with humour as I was keeping my friend in the dark as to what we were having and was choosing things that were not exactly typical.
When the starters arrived, I realised that I had probably made a grave error. The soup was thick and glutinous with a horrible texture and little taste. The chop looked worse and my friend’s face was pretty miserably when he tried it. Overcooked, with oil/fat rolling off of it that had passed its best. Still we crossed our fingers and sat back. Oddly, the waiter/owner did not particularly query the fact that we had hardly touched the starters even though I pointed out that we had not enjoyed the food much.
There was only one other set of customers in there, a table of around six men and women, none especially young and at least one middle-aged I would say. There had been a young couple when we arrived, but they left shortly after we ordered.
When our main courses arrived, we could hardly believe what had been put before us. There was a reek of overused oil/fat for a start. An almost identical look to all of the main dishes despite them supposedly being very different. Very thick, lumpy sauces. No subtlety at all. Nothing tasted fresh. Even the nan bread turned out to not be cooked properly (it looked okay on the outside but tasted floury).
The worst thing on the table though was the king prawn dish. We were not convinced that the king prawns were properly cooked, there seemed to be several clumped together and they were only luke warm.
After a very brief taste, we pushed all of the food away and found ourselves retching.
It took some considerable time before the waiter/owner came over despite having so few other customers. I had not wanted to call him over loudly as I hoped we could deal with the problem without embarrassing him publically or disturbing the other customers.
When I told him, very politely, as pleasantly and as clearly as possible, that we were very unhappy with the food, that we did not think it was of a good enough standard, and that we would not be able to eat it, he reacted very badly telling us that there was nothing wrong with the food at all and that we should not have ordered so much if we were not hungry. He started gesturing at us and told us that each item was perfectly fine.
We raised the king prawns from the glup they were covered in and he again told us they were fine and told us to get the Health Department in. Hardly the benchmark we wanted to measure a meal against (nor did we believe that there was an emergency call out service available from the Health Department). We expressed the view that we very much doubted that these were properly cooked and expected that any such test as he had suggested might well find an unacceptably high bacteria count of the wrong kind of bacteria.
We offered to reply for the drinks and popadoms we had consumed and leave quietly.
Unfortunately, by this time his other customers had become aware of the situation and chose to take the view, based on their own expert judgement of the food they had consumed, that our food was fine, that the owner was being unfairly treated and that we were freeloaders trying to get a free meal.
It escaped their attention that we had hardly touched our food and they ignored my friend’s protests that we were there on business expenses, so would not be interested in a free meal.
The verbal abuse became very personal and intense and threatening and the owner was encouraging them. We were wondering about how to close the situation down when the owner gave us an out. He threatened us with the Police. He told us that if we did not pay up, he would call the Police.
We grasped onto this. We said again that we were not going to pay for the food that we had not consumed and that we were happy for him to call the Police. He then encouraged us to dial 999 on our mobiles. We instead had him call the Police as we did not feel it was actually an emergency.
The Police arrived with fifteen minutes or so (impressive). The owner immediately explained the situation. The Police explained that it would be a civil matter and that they were only there to keep the peace. They took our details (we had our card driving licenses on us) and took note of our comments. When the owner complained about our not paying for the food we had ordered, one of the Policemen pointed out that he could see a lot of unconsumed food on the table and that we had offered to pay for what we had consumed.
The owner finally gave us a bill for the part we were prepared to pay for and I paid in cash and retained the receipt. While he was doing this we got the Policemen to write down their names and numb
ers for us for to reference just in case we needed them.
The other customers had kept their voices low when the Police first arrived but as it became clear that we were not in trouble with the Police, they started to raise their objections more loudly and repeat a few of the insults from earlier. One of the Policemen rebuked them on the basis that this was none of their business. As we left, he also advised the owner that he had noted all of the comments included those of the other customers and that these would be presented in court if it got to court.
Back at the hotel
We got back to our hotel shortly after 11 (with my friend having told me several times how stupid I had been for making us go into that restaurant in the first place, and warning me that I really owed him big time). We were starving. The bar was just closing but reopened to service our clear need. At least our need for drink to wipe away the smell and brief taste of the main courses.
The hotel was on the night-menu though. This means no professionally trained kitchen staff available to operate dangerous equipment. Only sandwiches and microwave meals available. No chips. Somehow, the microwaved curries offered to us did not appeal. We went to our respective beds hungry.
Should listen to your instincts and avoid restaurants that always seem to be empty. We may not always consider ourselves in agreement with the masses, but this is one area worth taking heed of the majority opinion. Worth keeping in mind many scenes from the TV show, Kitchen Nightmares.
I doubt very much that the owner will sue us. In fact, I do not believe he took our names and addresses although we did offer them. As it would be a civil matter, it seems unlikely that the Police would have handed our details over.
If he is daft enough to give it a go though, I really do not fancy his chances. The publicity should be enough to bury him alone.
I also doubt that the threats from the other customers that we should avoid coming to the town again will hold up.
The only time in many many years of working away from home for business and eating in many a town restaurant that I have been in a position where I felt I could not eat the food and refused to pay. I really should have seen it coming.