I’ve had some memorable banter with waiters in restaurants over the years, but “…AND DON’T EVER COME BACK, YOU RACISTS!” is unlikely to be superseded. Ever.
When I left Viva Dalston at the weekend I was laughing hysterically, but it was the same kind of laughter that I once found emanating from my housemate on our sofa after she’d heard news of a friend having committed suicide. I couldn’t process what had happened… so my brain had pivoted randomly to mirth.
The charm had shifted a notch from glacial Myra to puppy-drowning Priti Patel
Viva Dalston has been a favourite spot of mine for years. It’s a Mexican bar and restaurant that on certain nights reminds me of my favourite East Village dives – shabby and twinkly, with mezcal cocktails and a general sense of fun, but without a lurid visual theme. I once went to someone’s birthday there and the fragile, narrow little bench that three of us were on wobbled and sent us both flying backwards on to the floor – putting us in a position that the furniture wouldn’t allow us to untangle our legs from. We laughed. Embarrassed laughter, but genuine.
On Sunday, I went to Viva Dalston for a burrito with my husband, with that really pleasurable “You know where we haven’t been in AGES!?” excitement. Service was slow at first, but it was the end of the weekend, and while we were sitting inside, the garden was busy. And where isn’t understaffed these days?
Menus eventually arrived, and we asked for a margarita and a mezcal negroni. We then flagged down the waitress to order food. In an antic move, and with all the charm and warmth of Myra Hindley working in a Steiner School canteen, she instead took a menu away. This was unusual, but insufficient menus for a table is a scourge we’ve all dealt with in the past. When she next passed, I asked for the return of my menu and kept her in a holding pattern while we ordered. Five minutes then passed, and she appeared at our side with the air of someone who had just received life-changingly terrible news. “The kitchen has NO chicken; beef or vegan only.” It was announced with a cutting of throat hand gesture. The charm had shifted a notch from glacial Myra to puppy-drowning Priti Patel.
“Could we see the menus again?”
Back they came. As I was about to look at the details on the tacos, I asked “Does the ‘no chicken’ also mean the croquettes are off? Or are they premade?”
“I said NO CHICKEN!”
Never has been an absence of poultry been so weaponised. She then walked away with a stage whisper of “Jesus Christ” that could have been heard halfway down Kingsland Road.
I looked at my husband. “Did you hear that?” he asked. Yes, I had. So had everyone else nearby. And since I had the eyes-out position at the table, I’d seen her epic eye roll too.
That was when I gestured for the bill. I’m not prepared to pay fifty quid to be aggressed for an hour. I can get that for free from my Brexiter sister. Or could, if I were still speaking to her.
My husband, by far the more diplomatic of us, asked me to remain silent while he explained to the waitress as she slapped down the bill: “Just so you know, we’re not staying for dinner, because your attitude’s been quite rude.”
The needle swung straight to Eva Braun scorched earth, red mist, FURY. “Well, I don’t like YOUR attitude! YOU are the ones who have been rude – you’ve been REALLY CONDESCENDING.”
Given that I eat out at least three times a week, it’s amazing I’ve had cause to complain about the service in a restaurant as seldom as I have. But when I’ve explained why I might be taking my custom elsewhere, it’s always been polite, because I know precisely how much of a high-pressure environment a restaurant is. It’s never before escalated into a heated debate.
We asked the waitress for specifics of how we’d been “condescending”, also breaking down every single thing she’d done (in the politest way possible) that qualified as, you know, REALLY RATHER RUDE.
At this point, it felt like watching a character have a moment on film. Or rather, the take before the director asks the actor to dial it down a notch for verisimilitude. The rage was incredible, drawing from a well far deeper than not wanting to work a weekend shift. We stood up and I explained that, given the verbal abuse, we weren’t paying for the drinks. As we headed for the door she shouted “…AND DON’T EVER COME BACK… YOU RACISTS!”
Now, shit service is one thing, but this was another level.
I returned to the counter. “WOAH! What!!? WHAT did you just say!!?”
While she wouldn’t offer me “racist” again, she also refused my request for her to fetch whoever was in charge at Viva Dalston. “YOU WANT ME TO GET MY PHONE OUT AND GIVE YOU MY MANAGER’S NUMBER SO YOU CAN SNITCH ON ME!? YOU REALLY THINK I’M THAT STUPID!!? GET OUT.”
Everyone in the restaurant was agog. She was the entertainment. I was waiting for another member of staff to interject and perhaps take the waitress… away. But they clearly wanted nothing to do with it.
At this point it dawned on me that this might be a Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead scenario. This woman might not actually be a waitress. There probably was no manager. Certainly not one I was going to get to meet.
“Call the police if you want!” was her parting shot
“Call the police if you want!” was her parting shot. Which felt extreme. But given how we felt, also justified. I mean – someone called 999 when KFC ran out of chicken in 2018, and that hadn’t even involved a side order of traumatising verbal aggression.
So we left Viva Dalston, stood outside trembling in shock for a minute or so, and went to Testi up the road for a Turkish supper instead. We felt like we had just inadvertently tried to infiltrate some kind of niche dining institution in a foreign city that we didn’t understand, displayed bad manners despite ourselves, and unintentionally caused major offence. We spent half an hour going in forensic detail through every interaction with the waitress at Viva Dalston, to dust for any sign of attitude or condescension on our part. Were we, in fact, in the wrong? Had we failed to smile on arrival? Neglected to say “please” when placing an order? More than anything, I was jangling with the word “racist” still ringing in my ears. Because I can’t think of a worse accusation.
I wrote a feature last month for the Telegraph, on why British service standards are bad and getting worse. I interviewed key figures from hospitality about the disastrous impact that Brexit has had (the UK lost 93,000 EU key workers in the last 12 months purely because of the insanity of the actually racist-fuelled referendum). I wrote about how entry-level staff are now so desperately sought after that Pizza Express is introducing “gamification” into its training to appeal to younger applicants, and the noodle chain Pho is recruiting via posts on TikTok.
Restaurants and bars in London are having an existential crisis because of lack of staff. Shifts are being shortened, as are opening hours. But the only thing worse than having no staff, is having truly terrible staff. Because I’d rather pass a Viva Dalston that was closed for a few more days each week than have to point out to friends that that was the place I’d been the victim of random, scathing verbal abuse – a place I’ll never set foot in again. C
Viva Dalston, 2 Stoke Newington Road, London N16 7XN