The worst service I ever had was in London’s Chinatown. There was a cloudburst and then heavy rain so I scurried into one of the restaurants. The place was packed, and I was looking round trying to spot a table, when a furious-looking waiter pounced on me.
“What you waaaannn?”
I noticed people had stopped eating and were looking at me.
“Table for one,” I said slightly pompously.
The waiter eyed me suspiciously.
“We gorr no table for one! You go down stair!”
Then he was off in his shiny black shoes, scuttling waiters.
I stood there for a moment, confused. I didn’t like crowded restaurants at the best of times. The sniggers from nearby tables faded, and I spotted a staircase leading down. At the bottom, I was met by another waiter.
“Hi there, how are you doing?” I said.
His hate-filled eyes bored into me. It felt like a scene from Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence.
“Wery busy!” he spat. “What you waaan?”
He was worse than the last one. People were listening intently, pretending not to notice.
“Table for one, please.”
“You got no frenn? You go upstair, he give you table!”
“He just told me to come down here!”
I was going red in the face, and it drove him on mercilessly like a shark sniffing blood.
“You go back!” he shouted. “We got no table for one downstair!”
The tables around me exploded, and I walked back up the stairs humiliated, my back covered in laughter darts. I was furious, and penning a complaint letter in my head: “Dear Sir/Madam, I am writing in the strongest possible terms about the rudeness and downright insolence of two of your waiters…”
Then the manager shouted something at me. I hurried out, and looked up at the sign. It was Wong Kei – a place famed for the rudeness of its staff. Those mean bastards wouldn’t have got sacked as I’d hoped – they’d have got a pay rise. They’d probably even frame my letter and hang it on the toilet wall…
Now I’m not saying the service is anywhere near as bad in any of the excellent Chinese restaurants in Phnom Penh’s so-called Noodle Alley, on Street 136, next to the Central Market, but I’ve often wondered why you don’t find more tourists and expats there.
It’s got nothing to do with the food – for my money it has to be one of the best places to eat in Phnom Penh. The roast duck, especially in Shandong Restaurant (No. 103), is as good as anything you get in Beijing or Gerrard Street.
And it’s not the choice either. You’ll find traditional dishes like fried intestines, pork heart with red chillies, and duck tongues with onion and ginger, alongside the usual meals.
And it’s got nothing to do with prices. Generous portions of fabulous meat and fish dishes range from around $4 to $8. And it’s not the drinks either. They don’t even ask. Tea always comes, sometimes in small cups, sometimes in Anchor glasses. So what else could it be?
One of the first times I went to Noodle Alley, I was flicking through the menu, looking at “the suggestion house” of Hong Kong-style squid, dry pan dishes of seafood and duck, jellyfish with special sauce, and pig’s feet with mushrooms, as a well-dressed woman waited impatiently for me to order.
She began sighing. So I pointed to the braised ox tendons, and the Chinese bacon with green chillies, and she immediately screamed at someone behind her. Right in my ear. A man in an open-necked shirt and flannel trousers waddled over.
“What?” he barked.
“You have?” I said, pointing at the ox tendons.
“Beef!” he said.
This went on for 30 seconds as he scowled at me as though suddenly recalling a long-lost grudge. Then he sat back down at a round table with his friends. They were all checking their smart phones, and soon there was a battery of annoying ringtones and perpetual bleeps.
The shortest comedian was now speaking in a funny, strangled voice that kept drifting into English as the rest sniggered. I just wished I could understand so I could shout back something like: “Crowded elevator smell different to midget.”
I was jotting down notes, crunching into the delicious ox tendons, which had been braised in star anise and soy sauce, staining their windows of fat a pustular yellow, and then the brined pork and green chillies – a reminder of “Russian roulette” Padron peppers, leaving just a tingle on the tongue, and the occasional blast. And then a sour-looking waitress reached into a drawer behind me and tossed me a fork and spoon. There were more funny voices, as I persevered with the chop sticks.
There must have been eight waitresses for 10 covers, which meant none of them did anything, thinking someone else was going to do it. Their only job seemed to be to give you a bowl of rice from the roving rice pot, and then forget all about you. Only the girl steaming the dim sum outside looked in any way busy.
Some of the waitresses sat there staring as I ate. Others giggled as they peered over my shoulder at my writing. They talked about how small it was. It reminded me of a previous night. The silly voices and ringtones continued, and I again fought the urge to pick up one of those smart phones and feed it to the morose-looking dragon fish, which barely had room to turn in its tiny aquarium.
In the end, I gave up being nice after about the tenth visit, and returned the same unfriendly fire, and the service seemed to improve slightly. But if I had to choose between service and food, I’d take food anytime. I love the place, and am lucky to live round the corner and be able to order incredible Chinese food for a fraction of the price it is at home. But, strangely, I do miss the finer, more direct, class of rudeness you get at Wong Kei’s.
Alex is also on Twitter.