The Discernment of Being Undiscerning

The Discernment of Being Undescerning

I used to have a friend who was delightful in all respects until you got her into a restaurant.

At that point, she would become a monster. She would sneer and nitpick at the staff; she would critique the menu in a loud voice (‘Don’t these people realise that using the word ‘jus’ just marks them out as suburban?’), and she would make it a point of honour to complain about at least one dish over the course of a meal.

What delighted her to the most was to enter into some kind of a conference with the manager or the chef. That way, she could truly impress her levels of discernment upon them. Alternatively, she would enjoy sending plates of food back to the kitchen and refusing to pay.

Funnily enough, we don’t hang out any more.

So my friend was an extreme case (she also used to conveniently forget to bring any money with her to the pub) – but I think that suspending judgement is an underrated virtue. When I go out for an evening, my main aim is to enjoy the company of friends. I am not trying to attract the attention of The Times in case Giles Coren’s slot becomes free (nasty thought). Unless the food is actively poisonous, or the service deliberately negligent, I’d rather grin and bear it than make a fuss.

This is not just a British aversion to complaining; it’s just a commitment to having a good night out. Sometimes, restaurants deliver me the most mind-bogglingly wonderful taste sensations; sometimes the best that can be said is that they fill me up. But if the latter’s true, I see no reason to not to put it to the back of your mind, swallow down the rough wine and find something interesting to talk about.

Everyone’s a connoisseur these days. We post photos of our latest meals on Facebook in the way that Girl Guides line up badges on their sleeves. This means that we’re all feeling a little bit vulnerable: what if we like the wrong things? What if our exemplary dining experience turns out to have been defrosted from a Brakes Bros packet? We don’t want to be caught out. If we’re not sure of our taste buds, the only answer is to become hyper-critical of everything. After all, you’re always the winner if you think everyone else is shit, right? Right?

Well no, not really. What you’re actually doing is fabricating awkward and embarrassing social situations that alienate your friends.

Here’s an alternative suggestion: try a discernment sandwich. Exercise your discernment when you’re choosing you’re restaurant, and after you’ve finished your meal. In between those times, do your best to enjoy yourself. Order things that you think might be nice, rather than things that you think the chef has the most chance of screwing up. Steer clear of wines that look a bit dangerous. Forgive the mistakes of young, inexperienced staff. If it’s really awful – and you’re insecure enough to worry that your friends will like you less if you don’t spot this fact – lean across the table and whisper, ‘Bloody hell, this is the worst lasagne I’ve eaten in ages. Still, lovely to see you.’

There’s nothing remotely discerning about snobbery. It’s a boring blunt instrument employed by people who have no notion of pleasure. Conversely, there’s enormous discernment in employing well-honed social skills to turn a ropey meal into a pleasurable night out – as opposed to creating a drama in which you’re the tragic hero.




  1. Well…… I SORT of agree with you. But I also have no qualms about complaining in restaurants. Not loud “Come here please!” type complaining, but “quiet, call the waiter/waitress over and make it clear it isn’t good enough, so please would he/she have a word and have it made better for me” type complaining.

    Isn’t that ok? I don’t want to eat rubbish food, I don’t earn enough money to throw it away on stuff that isn’t good enough.

    Yes, I do give lots of slack to overworked serving staff, and I do accept that things go wrong in the best of kitchens. But it can be put right can’t it?

    p.s. I DO bring money to the pub, but I don’t usually drink so am a very boring drinking companion :(

  2. BettyHerbert

    That’s okay Lynne, we drinkers always love a designated driver! ;-)

  3. Dan

    I must agree with you. I’ve had a number of poor experiences with food – I’m vegetarian and that can sometimes mean I only get to choose the risotto and it’s usually a rather grim rice pudding like affair. People flap around me so much when this happens that the risotto suddenly becomes the best thing about the meal – it’s the only thing not checking if I’m ok. It seems no one can rest until they’re certain I would have chosen risotto no matter what was on offer. That aside, as that’s more to do with worrying about me than complaining, I’ve also watched as a usually mild mannered table companion has slowly become redder and redder before eventually mustering the energy and courage to overcome their sensibilities and embark on a horrible and totally over the top tirade aimed at a 16 year old who was probably genuinely scared. We all just sat about in shock for a bit and I don’t think I enjoyed a grain of my risotto. Needless to say, he would have been better eating the shoe leather and having an extra pint.

    • BettyHerbert

      It never ceases to amaze me how bad vegetarian food can be in restaurants. There are so many dishes that are supposed to be meat-free – so why do chefs insist on ruining something that’s supposed to have meat in it? But yes, I’m with you – when I was veggie, I’d make a big thing of having a plate of chips and a side salad, to save hassle.

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