The Shire Horse, near Littlewick Green, Berkshire, UK

Sunday dinner, like all evening meals when I’m jet-lagging, is an appetizer. No more than that.

That and a cider, of course.

I drove past The Shire Horse on the way to the hotel. The Shire’s “car park” was nearly full at the time, midday Saturday. That spoke well for the place. And Sunday evening when I asked the hotel desk for ideas, it was mentioned. That sealed the deal.

Waiting for Dinner

Like most proper British pubs, you can sit at the bar for dinner or find an empty table. In the latter case, if you want a food order you note the table’s number recorded somewhere on top of, screwed onto the side, written on the wall behind it or hand-written on the malt vinegar bottle, leave something to stake your claim to the table and then go to the bar and order. The barman takes your drink and dinner order, fills one and enters the other. You pay directly — er, immediately — or he can hold your card if you want to run a tab.

I always pay — one pint is plenty.

And in case you don’t know, there’s no tipping.

I must say I really like this arrangement. It’s so much better than the service I get in the states. At a proper British pub, there’s no sitting around waiting for the wait-person — ever wonder why they’re called “wait”-persons? — to leave the menu but jet off with no more than your drink order, return a couple of minutes later with the drink but, again, disappear before taking your order. Then, the US-style server will come back again — this is the third visit, mind you — and take your food order.

And invariably after that, it seems my “party of one” and the miniscule tip it is now imagined I will leave takes a distant back seat to the party of six on their third round of drinks. And so my order sits in the warmer until exceedingly overdone, and dry, and then it gets carried all around the restaurant with other others, meanwhile fanning my food to tepidity (is that a word?).

All that rigamarole is there, of course, to make the server seem all the more important, all the more essential, and somehow guarantee you’ll leave a bigger tip.

But wait, we’ve got this backwards!

Bribes have to be delivered up front or they don’t work. Doesn’t “tip” mean “To Insure Promptness?” Shouldn’t we be giving our nickels and dimes, well maybe stacks of quarters and dollar bills each step of the way? Wouldn’t that make more sense?

But no, we wait until the very end. That way, we’re all pissed off at the lousy service and the server finally realizes she’s neglected you, discriminated against you, was prejudiced from the very beginning and now she just wants you to get the hell out of her sight.

And don’t give me any of that crap about, “It’s not her fault.”

Bull!

I worked in a restaurant. I waited tables. Hell, I roller-skated orders to cars in the parking lot and got zero tip as the customer complained, “Send the girl next time.”

Look, the server can toss the meal back to the cook if it’s bad. And if the cook doesn’t like that treatment, he can go to the manager. [Yes, it sounds like I’m being sexist but I’m not. I just know that most servers are female, and most cooks in restaurants are male. I’m just using the majority-term. If we’re gonna have “wait-persons”, let’s require they all be named Pat, OK?] And after that chain of complaining, if the manager comes down on the server, then it’s a crappy place and the server should forget her tips and just try to survive until she can find a better place.

Yes, the server is responsible.

If I piss her off with a small tip, she’ll ask herself why. And if she figures out the food was cold, was burnt, took forever to get delivered, maybe, just maybe she’ll keep an eye on things a little better next time.

The idea is it’s money in her pocket.

If the customer is happy, they’ll make her happy.

That’s how it’s supposed to work and, in the finer restaurants, perhaps it does.

But most of us don’t eat in those places on a regular basis.

For most of us, if we sit down to a meal where there’s someone to take and deliver our order, it’s in some nationally-known chain where dinner with all the trimmings is $10-15 so the tip is, what $2-3? So from the wait-person’s (yes, OK, I can say that, too) from the wait-person’s perspective, just how much kowtowing is worth three bucks? (Probably not much.)

So, now the diner thinks, should I cut the tip from $3 to $2, or to $1? And if they’re really mad, some diners might even consider leaving the ultimate insult, two cents, to say, “No, I didn’t forget your tip. Guess what this means?”

But then the gets messed up because, after a lousy meal in the states, many diners now get cold feet about expressing their true feelings. They say to themselves, “Well, maybe it’s not her fault this dinner took so long, or that the food was overdone, or that it was cold,” or rationalize some other reason not to risk a confrontation.

So they leave their usual 15-20% tip which tells the wait-person everything was fine, or more likely it says that the customer is an idiot with no taste buds, no ability to grasp the subtle concept of “hot” food, and whose mother probably served the original Swanson TV dinners still frozen.

Dining in a British pub, on the other hand, is civilized.

You place your order, drink or food, when it suits you. The barman doesn’t expect a tip. Instead he wants to get it out of his hands as quickly as possible, so it goes
right to the kitchen. And when the food comes up, the kitchen doesn’t want to see it anymore so they instantly call someone to make the delivery “to table number 46 … and here’s one for 14 while you’re about it”.

Oh, and when you’re finished eating at a proper British pub, you leave. There’s no need to look for your server, flag her down by waving your credit card in the air, and no feeling of obligation to add back that dollar you mentally deducted for some affront you now rationalize that you imagined, possibly out of thirst or hunger that were obviously your own fault for waiting so long to place your order in the first place.

No, in a proper British pub, when you’re done, you go.

This was to be my second jet lag dinner. My plan when traveling internationally is to have light dinners for the first three nights to get through the jet lag. During that time, I don’t read the whole menu. Just the appetizers.

Today’s Menu

And there, first on the list of the Shire Horse’s “Starters” menu, were scallops.

I love scallops!

And I love spinach, and the “Chili and Seasame Seed Sauce” — is that the British spelling? They would be a nice contrast with the scallops. It would be a nice light
meal but with some protein, vitamins and minerals.

At the bar I ordered, “Table 46, I’ll have the scallops and a pint of Strongbow.”

“That’s 8.95.”

In US dollars, that’s about $16.00 at this time — pricey for such a small meal,
yes, but perfect to what my job requires that I go through to be ready to teach
the next morning.

Yes, it’s a tough job sometimes but, by golly, someone’s got to do it and this time it’s me that’s up half the night unable to sleep, and then struggling through class to stay awake and give well thought out answers to tough technical questions the next day.

So yes, when I’m travelling, I watch what I eat and try to take care of my body and brain so they can function and do what my employer expects me to do.

I hand the barman my credit card, sign the receipt a few moments later, pick up my cider and walk back to the table that I left under guard by my reversible raincoat and folding umbrella.

And, true to form, less than one-third of my pint later, someone never seen before
drops off the food still steaming from the skillet.

Scallops on Toast
with Fresh Spinach

“Bravo,” I think as I look at the nicely seared scallops.

“Good sized, not too many for my stomach, spinach looks very fresh. Hope the chili has some pizzazz.”

At the first bite, my tongue tells me the scallops are done “just barely” as they should be. Someone in the kitchen knew exactly when to get them out of the skillet so
that, as they were rushed to my table, they would finish cooking with the residual heat.

And the spinach is fresh, very fresh, obviously grown somewhere nearby or, worst case, driven in just that morning from a plane through Heathrow 20 miles east of here.

A little more “jazz” in the chili would’ve been all right is my only complaint, and a weak one at that. Just my personal taste.

Of course, it was a small meal, a very small meal. I was done in five minutes, and that only by cutting each scallop in half and, at the end, using the last few gobbets of bread to mop up the sweet chili sauce.

Two-thirds of my pint were gone with the last bite.

I set the empty plate on the other side of the table, pushed my chair back slightly and leaned back to savor the atmosphere.

And I suddenly realized, no one was smoking!

There was no smoke in this otherwise most proper British pub!!

Nor was anyone smoking at the Bird in Hand for my lunch of split pea soup with a pint of Guinness even though that extremely traditional Inn had roots back to the thirteenth century.

No one smokes in British pubs anymore!

So I have to say this for the Brits: they not only know how to run a proper pub that caters to its customers — oh yes, I’ll go back to the Shire Horse all right — but they’re also not afraid to see something that works somewhere alien with decidedly silly ideas called “tipping” that obviously aren’t working, try this other idea called “no smoking” to see if it works for their British clientele, and to adopt it when it does.

Well done, England!

I think I’ll have another pint, if you please.

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