The Rules

The service in Korea’s restaurants is rather different from what I’ve been used to in other countries.

There are two main groups when it comes to restaurant staff. The first is the ajummas, who tend to work in the kimbap diners or in the ‘specialist’ restaurants (the places where your meal cooks in a pot or pan in the middle of your table, and there’s generally only one kind of food available, plus variations of it – dak galbi, samgyeopsal, dakdoritang…). These women are as no-nonsense and gruff in their work environment as they are on the streets, which was a shock to my Westernised, “the-customer-is-always-right” system at first. They will tell you in no uncertain terms what is expected from you as a customer in their restaurant, and woe betide you if you misunderstand and sit at the wrong end of the table, or try to order more drinks when the food’s all gone (you must order more food, too – it’s a cultural thing). My friends and I tend to revert to meek little schoolchildren as we try to figure out what we’re being told off for this time, and how we can make it right.

The woman at our favourite barbecue restaurant down the road went off on a major rant when she discovered that we’d put too much meat on our grill and some of it was starting to burn. South African Friend Four once got a hearty smack for accidentally sitting in the outdoor dining section that actually belonged to the restaurant next door. And the thing is, although this sort of treatment would be considered appalling customer service back home, here it’s just normal. There’s almost something endearing and comforting about it now! They’re not actually angry with us; it’s just the way they are. The ajumma who works at the dak galbi restaurant, for example, is always delighted to see us, and often gives us extra goodies for free. If we are being served by someone else, she makes a point of coming over anyway to say hello, always putting a motherly arm around my shoulders in greeting. Terri once went there with someone else, and told me afterwards that the ajumma was genuinely concerned that I had been replaced, asking if i was ill, or had left the country without saying goodbye! And yet this same lady, the very spirit of hospitality and kindness, will not hesitate to tell me off if I try to add the rice to the dak galbi too early, or forget to put on an apron when I’m wearing a white top.

The other most common restaurant workers are the students. They tend to work in the more modern eateries downtown, and in the Western restaurants where there are more likely to be foreign customers. They usually speak some English, and very often you can lose sight of the fact that you’re in Korea – TGI Friday’s is TGI Friday’s, wherever you go! But you’re jolted back to reality fairly quickly if anyone at your table dares to request something a little bit different from what’s on the menu. We find it very difficult to understand the confusion, stress, and near-panic that ensues if, for example, someone’s ordering a set menu but doesn’t like any of the drink choices, so asks for a similarly-priced alternative. No, you must have one of these! they insist. There’s no point fighting it, we’ve learned over time, so the next step is obviously to say OK, never mind – don’t bring me the drink. And I’ll order a different drink as extra. Panicked expression. I’ll have to check…. and they scuttle off nervously to find out whether it’s OK for the customer to not like the drink on the set menu, and to pay extra to order a separate drink. The mind boggles.

Last night, we went to a cool modern basement bar which – unusually for Daejeon – has a great selection of imported beers. It also has a fantastic all-you-can-eat/drink offer from 5pm-10pm. For just 10,000 won (£5.70) you can have your beer glass refilled as many times as you want. I don’t think you’d get much change out of that after buying just one pint back home! For another 8,000 won, you have free, unlimited access to the buffet, too. Herein lay the problem for our group, as some of us had already eaten and did not wish to take advantage of the buffet offer, while some were looking forward to loading their plates high. This was, we soon discovered, against The Rules. Either you all pay for the buffet, or none of you do, said our waiter. This was fair enough, we reflected, since you can see how unscrupulous types might just pay for one or two people, and then bring enough food back for everyone at the table. So, in our naive, Western-minded way, we attempted a compromise. As we were sitting at a long table that was really two tables pushed together, we asked if we could sit all the eaters at one and all the non-eaters at the other, and push the tables apart slightly. That way they could clearly see that the food was all on one table. But no, that would not do. They weren’t giving us any help, either, or suggestions about what to do about our hungry friends – they were just gathering around us, one by one, looking stressed and worried. OK, we said finally, the people who want to eat will just go to this empty table over here until they’ve finished eating. But no! The staff were having none of it. By this stage the entire staff was milling around our table, and it was all very dramatic and ridiculous. Oh, for goodness sake! I exclaimed, getting annoyed at the stupidity of it all, what if they just leave and come back in again on their own and don’t speak to us, and you can treat them as separate customers?! 

And so it was that eventually our hungry friends were ushered away to another table out of our reach, where they were finally allowed to eat, while at least three bar staff kept watch on them from a distance lest they try to throw a piece of pasta in our direction. We passed them occasionally on our way to the bathroom or to the bar for our refills, and tried to avoid making eye contact so that we couldn’t be accused of food smuggling.

Clearly, in Korea, The Rules must always be followed to the letter!


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