The 'hostility business': As rudeness becomes a mainstream selling point, Bill Knott remembers past masters
Published 16 August 2022

Credit: Karen's Diner

‘The customer is always right’ is an age-old trope. Those unblemished by hapless naivety will not be convinced anybody in the hospitality business actually believes it, but almost all think diners should at least be treated as though they are. As rudeness in restaurants become fad, Bill Knott looks back at some of the industry's most notable combatants. 

Hospitality is about pleasure, and restaurants are there to provide conviviality and happiness. Not all. Karen's Diner, a casual burger joint that started life in Australia, now has sites in Sheffield and Manchester, and is opening soon in Birmingham and London. Their strapline? ‘Great Burgers And Very Rude Service.’ Apparently sane and well-adjusted diners book tables at Karen's Diner so that they and their guests can be verbally abused by the staff. ‘You can complain until the cows come home,’ says the website, ‘because we literally don't care.’

It sounds a ghastly experience, and I know Karen's Diner won’t be appearing in The Good Food Guide any time soon. But the concept did make me think of a few, shall we say, combative hosts who have graced the Guide's pages over the years: in fact, all three of them are among a mere handful of chefs to be awarded 10/10 (the Guide’s old scoring system, now replaced).

Credit: Christopher Pillitz/Alamy Stock Photo

There was Nico Ladenis: order a second gin-and-tonic – a drink he loathed – at Chez Nico and you would risk expulsion from the dining room; Marco Pierre White, a Nico alumnus, who once claimed to have thrown 54 people out of Harvey's, his ground-breaking Wandsworth restaurant, in a single evening; and Gordon Ramsay (who worked at Harvey's: I feel a pattern emerging) who famously ejected both the restaurant critic A.A. Gill and his guest, Joan Collins, from his Chelsea flagship. 'I don't respect him as a food critic and I don't have to stand there and cook for him’, Ramsay wrote in The Independent newspaper in 1998.

My old friend Nancy Lam, the ebullient, voluble chef-proprietor of the currently closed Enak Enak in Wandsworth, was less precious, but just as rude, and her outbursts were invariably funny. A.A. Gill was again in the firing line: Nancy once told him to move his ‘fat balls under the table’. When she spotted Craig Brown, then the Sunday Telegraph critic, making notes, she told him to ‘f*** off’. Brown, so he wrote in his column, ‘instantly warmed to her.’

Credit: Nancy Lam

But there was one host of my acquaintance who stands head and shoulders above all these; a peerlessly abusive landlord and restaurateur. Step forward the improbably named ‘Kim’ Joseph Hollick de la Taste Tickell, who ran the Tickell Arms in Whittlesford, a few miles south of Cambridge. My parents would go there occasionally for dinner - the pub's restaurant was remarkably good - and would still be giggling about their host's eccentric behaviour days later.

In fact, the word ‘eccentric’ barely does him justice. He dressed in 18th century-style knee breeches and silver-buckled shoes, wore a monocle and occasionally wielded a ceremonial mace, and had a trout lake in the garden in which he would swim naked. One correspondent in The Times, after Tickell's death in 1990, reminisced that he would then stride through the bar, still naked, ‘with algae dripping from his personage.’ Many of his staff were attractive blond Germans - Siggi, short for Siegfried, was his long-term lover - and his taste in music was similarly Teutonic, with Wagner a particular favourite.

The self-styled ‘Squire’ of the village, Tickell had a long and rambling list of animosities which he pinned to the door of the pub. Over the years, the list grew: 'anti-nuclear campaigners, jeans-wearers, unescorted or modern women, men with earrings, hippies, the wearers of collarless shirts, men wearing waistcoats without ties, and women who picked at candlewax'. And ‘lefties’: one diner had the temerity to pay with a Co-op Bank cheque, which he tore into pieces, shouting ‘leave now, socialist trash!’

Credit: The Tickell Arms

He didn't suffer students gladly, either. Another Times correspondent recalled an evening when a particularly arrogant undergraduate complained about the cold and instructed the landlord to put another log on the fire: ‘With that, Squire Tickell climbed over the bar, instructed the young man to stand up, and then proceeded to smash his chair against the wall, break it into bits and put it on the fire. Nobody else complained about the temperature that evening.’

My own experience of the Squire was disappointingly uneventful. I even tried to provoke him by asking the way to the toilet, but he just waved in the loo's general direction, absorbed in his newspaper.

He may have been a mass of prejudices, affectations, delusions and bigotry, and I severely doubt these would been tolerated in our more egalitarian age – quite rightly. But he did have wit and style. Which, I think, is more than you can say for Karen's Diner.

- Bill Knott