Bad waiters in Austria: was my experience of a remarkably mouthy waiter in a cafe in 1986 an example of Vienna service at its worst? Or at its best?
My original Vienna Cafe Reviews story, published in March 2017 mentioned bad waiters, and included a story about a customer having an awful experience trying to get the bill, back in 1986.
Bad waiters? But Austrian waiters are brilliant!
A couple of my Austrian friends sprang to the defence of Austrian waiters. Sure, Vienna cafes had a charming, the-waiter-is-always-right serving ethos, they said. But who wanted subservient waiters? The attitude of Vienna cafe waiters, they said, was all about the dignity of labour, and standing up for the right to be treated as a human being.
I recommend the Cafe Schwarzenberg, which is not the cafe referred to below!
People. This is barmy. These comments reminded me of my 2004 Financial Times piece “When dinner becomes the last supper“, which begins: Friends from Paris, Madrid or New York often ask me: “Why are German waiters so brilliant?” It’s a satire, by the way. Traditional German waiters are as bad as Austrian ones, although not so consistently awful.
Many Austrian cafes have great service
Of course, many Austrian waiters are great. In Vienna cafes such as the Sperl, the Bräunerhof and the Tirolerhof, which are as traditional as they come, the waiters go about their business is an efficient and thoroughly satisfactory way.
Lots of modern establishments employ students and young jobbing types, who are perfectly friendly and treat customers as human beings. But most “traditional” waiters, trained to ignore customers and to complete all other tasks in a cafe and discuss world events with their colleagues before asking what you want or bring the bill, are spectacularly awful.
So what happened in 1986? here is the full story.
In 1986 I met a king among bad waiters in Vienna
I had been invited to lunch by a friend from the Vienna Town Hall (the mayor at that time was Mr Zilk). My friend suggested we go to a certain cafe, famed for its traditions.
‘When I used to come here,’ my friend told me, ‘the head waiter was always miserable. Then, one day, I asked him why he was so sad. He told me about his personal problems; his marriage, his children. Nowadays, we are the best of friends. He always looks after me.’
We duly arrived at the cafe, and sat down to eat a perfectly decent lunch.
When the time came to pay, the waiters were clustered around a cash machine on the far side of the room. My friend signalled to the head waiter that he would like to pay.
‘Komm’ gleich,’ came the answer (‘just a moment’).
Time passed. My friend, embarrassed at the delay after his talk of terrific service, again signalled that he would like to pay.
‘Komm’ sofort,’ the head waiter said (‘I’m coming immediately’).
More time passed. By now, it was getting late, for both of us, and my friend was becoming agitated. Again, he signalled for the bill.
‘Bin schon da,‘ the head water shouted (‘I’m there already’).
By this time it felt as though the afternoon were well advanced, although in fact not more than 20 minutes had passed. After waiting a little longer, my friend rose to his feet. He drew himself up to his full height, and shouted across the restaurant.
‘Entschuldigung, aber ich muss zur Arbeit gehen,’ he said. ‘Kann ich bitte jetzt endlich zahlen?’ (‘I’m sorry, but I have to go back to work. Can I please pay, finally?’)
The head waiter turned away from his colleagues at the till. ‘Wenn Sie es so eilig haben,’ he shouted back, ‘sollen Sie zu Hause bleiben.‘ (‘If you’re in such a hurry, you should stay at home.’)
Bad waiters: patience helps
Let’s be clear. This kind of thing does not happen every day. As I say in my reviews, most Viennese cafes are excellent; I visit them regularly and enjoy their traditions.
But at one or two of them, it still helps to be patient.
Thanks for reading!
P.S. This is a true story. If my generous host that day is reading this, do get in touch!
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