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Saturday, January 17, 2009

Everything old is new again. It also takes twice as long and costs twice as much

In the area around the Angel, Islington there are two kinds of pubs. There are the old working class boozers which are run for their regulars. Then there are the new pubs aimed at free-spending young people turning up after work. The latter are in the premises previously devoted to the former. To a certain extent they model themselves on a "Passport To Pimlico" version of an old neighbourhood public house. Lots of mirrors and aspidistras. Food on the blackboard. No carpets.

The customer experience in these places is often at odds with the note struck the decor. In the old working class pub you'd be served by a middle-aged woman who could fill the most complex order very quickly and would not need anything explaining to her twice. Nothing was perfect but it would all be there in double quick time. In the new pub on the other hand you will be served by someone who has been hired on the basis of their haircut. They will address you as if you were a personal friend and then take hours to bring a round of drinks to the bar, largely because they haven't mastered the computerised till and they want to be sure that you wanted Guinness rather than extra-cold Guinness. They are also generally in that age group between University and Real Life where they're Not Really Listening. Service is not as high on their agenda as image and they have that young person's belief that if it's less than first-rate you'll put up with it because complaining is so un-cool.

On my way to the Robert Capa exhibition at the Barbican this morning I stopped at a diner in Smithfield Market to get a snack. This was a newly opened place that advertised "Great British Grub". Inside it had been tricked out like some art director's version of Stanley Holloway's Pie and Mash shop. Black and white tiling and old Picture Post covers in frames. The food was fine. The customer base at that time of the morning was two gay couples and me. If this were a real working man's cafe of the kind I used to go in when I worked on the bins all five of us would probably have been regarded as interlopers.

Then something odd happened. Into this bourgeois fantasy of working class life wandered a painter and decorator. He had not come for the cultural tourism. He wanted a cup of coffee, a slice of toast with marmalade and a sausage sandwich to take out. The uniformed young woman serving, who was east European, was charming. Nonetheless you could see the cultural chasm yawning between her and the new customer. Her first step in filling his order was of course to painstakingly enter its components in the electronic till which was presumably connected to one in the kitchen. Then she made him a coffee. He asked for two sugars. She smiled and proffered two of those tubular sachets of sugar that are all the rage these days. He prised off the top of the polystyrene cup and painstakingly squeezed the sugar into the cup. By now he was clearly thinking, I should be back up my ladder by now. At this point a chef appeared from the kitchen. He was also east European. He consulted with the young waitress. She smiled at the customer and asked him whether he wanted the sausage inside the sandwich. Yes, he did. And did he want the marmalade on the toast? Yes, he did.

I paid and left because I had got to the point where I felt it was about to get embarrassing. I felt sorry for everyone involved. For the decorator who just wanted his breakfast quick. For the staff who were charged with delivering a dining experience that they had never encountered themselves. And also for the middle-aged working class English women who used to work in the actual caffs that thrived in this very area before it was taken over by design studios and advertising agencies. What's wrong with having The Thing rather than something designed to look like The Thing? If you go to France or Italy, for instance, you will have access to standard dining and snacking experiences. The brasserie. The espresso place with the zinc bar. They're there in every town. What you don't find is streets crammed with expensively refurbished premises offering - there is no alternative but to use this word - faux dining experiences imported from the recent past, experiences that leave people not knowing entirely where they stand and wondering whether they've been had. They say the serving of food is a performance. Or is that code for "we've doubled the price"?