x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Encountering service without the smile

In New York, a waiter bullies a tourist into a better tip.

Service with a smile is something I have come to take for granted in Dubai. From a humble coffee shop to the finest haute-cuisine establishments, rarely if ever is the service anything less than fantastically friendly. Which is why the welcome I received at a New York restaurant recently was so stunning. With my companion and I having spent a freezing afternoon gawping at the Wall Street protesters and winding our way through Chinatown's labyrinthine streets, it was time to be fed and watered.

"There's only one place in town," Anthony, a Neapolitan shopkeeper in Little Italy told us. "You gots to try Angelo's - best ravioli in the state."

Too hungry to seek out a second opinion we headed straight for Mulberry Street. After passing umpteen flag-fronted eateries, we spied the striped awnings of one of the district's oldest restaurants, established in 1902. From Hollywood actors to the late President Reagan, it seems the great and good had passed through Angelo's doors over the years and one whiff of the sweet garlic and oregano-infused air told us why. With the place full to bursting, the only available table was next to the door, which was kept permanently ajar due to hoards of hungry customers forming a queue now snaking around the block.

Sat in the bracing wind, undeterred, we soaked up the atmosphere and hurriedly ordered the house specialty of lobster ravioli with shrimp and radicchio. We were, however, to quickly experience another cold front.

Keen to practise, the Italian under-study for a year, my companion ordered for us both. Yet our waiter - far too busy to enter into the spirit of things, repeated our dishes in English, snapped our menus closed and raced to the next table. Nevertheless, all was soon forgiven when our food arrived as it was, without doubt, the most exquisitely flavoured pasta we had ever eaten.

With two helpings of cannoli polished off and our substantial bill settled, as we started to leave we were surprised to see the frowning waiter blocking our path. "Look, I know you're not from around here but this is not enough," he said, handing back the signed credit card receipt. "I'll leave you the pen."

Turns out a 15 per cent tip was about as insulting to our Southern Italian hosts as criticising mama's cooking. Our hotel concierge was later to inform us this was a common tactic used to guilt tourists into leaving 30 per cent.

The best tip I could have given our waiter would have been that a simple smile goes a very long way, as sadly does a story about terrible restaurant service.