I thought I had made my peace with it. I thought I understood the excellent reasons why it had come to be so. But I’m afraid this business of waiters not writing down orders has begun to trouble me again.
When the trend took off, years ago, I overcame my Larry David tendencies by positioning myself as a defender of it: It’s no different from bartenders memorising lengthy orders, often while drunk themselves, I said. And: It’s more egalitarian this way, no bowing of heads and other signs of subservience. Or: These young waiters grew up on DS brain-training games; their brains are trained.
Oh dear. Here is a transcript of a conversation I had last week in a South London café that offers made-to-order sandwiches to take away. There is no menu from which to deviate and the order was made at the counter, eliminating the risk of memory loss between table and till.
Sandwich-maker: ‘How can I help you?’
Me: ‘Four sandwiches, please.’
‘Which sandwiches would you like?’
‘It’s quite complicated, so maybe you’d like to write it down?’
‘No, I’m fine.’
‘One cheese, ham and salad on white baguette, no butter and no tomato, with a bit of mustard. One salami and gherkin, also on white baguette, no salad other than the gherkin. One smoked salmon and cream cheese on ciabatta, no butter or lemon. One paté with salad on brown baguette.’
‘So the first one was…?’
‘The first one was cheese, ham and salad.’
‘Baguette or ciabatta?’
‘Brown or white?’
She starts to prepare it, starting with the butter.
‘I said no butter!’
She discards the bread and starts again. ‘Cheese and salad, you said?’
‘And ham. Cheese, ham and salad.’
‘So salad, with that?’ She dangles a slice of tomato.
‘Yes, but no tomato, if you remember.’
Ditto Sandwich Two. Not a single element of the order has been recalled. It’s as if we’ve never met and I’ve just started from scratch.
Before she begins the third, I say: ‘Just a suggestion, but why not write the orders down at the beginning and then you don’t need to ask the customer to repeat her order one ingredient at a time.’
Blank gaze. ‘So the third sandwich was?’
‘Another idea is you could ask for the orders one by one as you make them. Having the customer list multiple fillings at the beginnings serves no purpose.’
‘So the third sandwich was?’
Here, Larry David surfaces. ‘Why don’t you tell me what you remember about the third sandwich?’
I prompt: ‘Smoked salmon and…?’
‘On baguette or ciabatta? Any butter or salad or lemon or–?’
I’ll stop there before we all lose the will to live, but eventually she takes them to the till to ring up the prices.
‘So we’ve got four sandwiches,’ she says. ‘The first one was?’
I sigh. ‘You know what? You choose.’