"How on Earth can you guys stand this?!"
The gentleman sitting next to me at a recent dinner out was surely annoyed. His name was Jean Pierre, he was a 71-year-old French hotelier who spent almost 50 years in hospitality industry management. He and a couple of his colleagues were having dinner with us, a small group of Russian glossy magazine editors, in Bolshoi, one of Moscow's most expensive and posh restaurants next door to the newly reopened Bolshoi Theater.
Chandeliers and Christmas decorations glittered, Tchaikovsky symphonies were being played and the crowd was all dressed up. But Monsieur Jean Pierre just couldn't possibly sit still. He'd get up every ten minutes or so, calling waiters, a manager, trying to find out why they wouldn't bring bread for 40 minutes, why the appetizers came more than an hour late, why the listed menu items weren't available, and why the cigar he had asked for never came at all.
"If I were in McDonald's, I wouldn't say a word but here you'd expect a different kind of treatment," he sputtered.
But we, the journalists, just sat there and patiently waited, feeling slightly embarrassed and sorry for our guest's struggle (this was his very first visit to Moscow). But frankly, we weren't that surprised that even a top Moscow locale seemed unsatisfactory to a savvy Westerner when it came to the service.
"Monsieur, it has been just 20 years since the Soviet Union fell, our restaurant business is still too young," I mumbled at some point, trying to justify the lousy service.
"Twenty years?! But that's a lifetime, my dear! I'd train my staff in a just a few months!" the venerable hotelier frowned to me.
Our friend Jean Pierre definitely knew what he was talking about. Royal Mansour, a grand hotel he manages in Marrakech, Morocco, where he is a general manager, ranks not only among the top in the country but one of the finest in the entire world. Celebrities stay there, heads of state and all sorts of VIPs pop in on a regular basis, and no one, as far as known, has ever complained.
Whereas in Moscow, reputed to be one of the most expensive cities in the world, the service — especially in restaurants — leaves much to be desired. I personally own a collection of the city eateries' nightmares. Curiously, it often happens that the pricier and more posh the locale, the lamer the treatment. As if the mere fact of sitting on designer chairs, eating with lavish cutlery and being welcomed at the entrance by a model hostess paid off for everything else.
Once I was going out with a group of friends, a few of them Russian, a few from Western Europe. We were in one of those typical Moscow trendy places where you'd often doubt if one came there to eat or rather to show off. We did drop by to eat — the place had just opened, and the reviews promised, beside the cool interiors, a fair quality of food. My friend Steven from Amsterdam, the Netherlands, a meat aficionado, ordered a medium-rare steak. Oddly, everyone got served, except him, who very much looked forward to have a bite after a long day at work. Halfway through our entrees, his steak finally arrived. It was... half burnt! Steven sent it back to the kitchen even though our waiter insisted the meat was just fine.
A quarter of an hour later the response came (but no steak!) that the chef believed the dish was all right. By this time we had all eaten. Steven, starved and outraged, sent for a manager. When the guy showed up some ten minutes later my poor friend was ready to beat him up. All we got in the end was a 20% discount on the bill, but we still had to pay for the steak.
"If you don't protest, nothing will ever change in Russia," hotelier Jean Pierre said wistfully back in the Bolshoi restaurant.
As much as I wanted to defend my country, I could not help but agree. Without going into social and political issues, we Russians are way too patient and tolerant when it comes to the way we're being treated. While eating out, we sit there and meekly wait even if our order doesn't come for an hour. We say nothing if they bring us a cold meal or a wrong wine. We pay a fortune for three-week-old mozzarella, fake tom yum soups and horrible coffee. In my previous column I suggested to stop complaining and try to see the doughnut, not the hole. In fact, I've got a friend who never leaves a restaurant or a cafe without making a scandal there or at least some fuss. Nothing pleases her — the way the tables are situated, how it smells, the color of the curtains, the taste of the water, the shape of the bread, the music, you name it.
While this behavior is certainly extreme, I think we should not let things we consider unacceptable go by. Complain, protest, call the manager, ask to replace the poorly cooked dish, refuse the wine if that's not what you've asked for, etc. The service culture was indeed nonexistent during Soviet times, but it doesn't mean we should comply with inadequacy and unprofessionalism on that front now. We are the ones who pay the bill and often a substantial one after all.
The customer might not always be right, but he has a right to at least be heard.
The views expressed in this column are the author’s and may not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.
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Svetlana Kolchik, 33, is deputy editor-in-chief of the Russian edition of Marie Claire magazine. She holds degrees from the Moscow State University Journalism Department and Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She has worked for Argumenty i Fakty weekly in Moscow and USA Today in Washington, D.C., and contributed to RussiaProfile.org, Russian editions of Vogue, Forbes and other publications.