Kaupo Meiel: Memories of the land of great restaurant service

Kaupo Meiel.
Kaupo Meiel. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

ERR's Kaupo Meiel compares the service culture of Greece and Estonia in a daily commentary which was provided for Vikerraadio.

I have just spent got back from a recent vacation in Greece, where I spent a little under a fortnight. Not on the exciting, though alas at the moment, burning, islands, but in the capital, Athens and in the second largest, most important city, Thessaloniki, to get to know a little bit of history and simply to live in the rhythm of a country quite different from Estonia.

On returning to my homeland and giving a few impressions to my friends and acquaintances, they were keen to ask me what the most memorable or lasting experience had been. Naturally, the ruins of ancient temples were among these; the mountain monasteries of Meteora, and the surrounding nature were powerful, but the greatest experience certainly had to be the local food, and the service culture that accompanies it.

What else is there to do in the near-40-degree heat for this tired tourist, but to walk around the city and look around with eyes wide open, where is there a place to sit in the shade, to get something to eat and sip something cool.

According to data from last year, the share of tourism in Greece's GDP comes to more than 18 percent, or about €38 billion. 

It is clear that beautiful nature, constant sun and a rich history is not enough on its own; tourists need to be offered good food and drink, in addition to trinkets like the small souvenir copies of ancient sculptures.

In my experience, service culture has been essentially perfected in Greece. 

Meeters and greeters are present at almost every taverna, restaurant and cafe. 

These are in the main older gentlemen, who, along with the wait staff, help you to find a table, present the menu, and corral a waiter into attending to you, quickly. 

Through the eyes of an introverted Estonian, this can all seem intrusive at first blush, but eventually you become accustomed to it, because it all works well.

It works with precision and speed, deliciously, and with some surprises. 

As in many other countries, for example in Spain or France, those who order a bottle of wine can expect to receive some small snacks with their glass, for free; sometimes these are just nuts, sometimes something more special like mini snacks made with specially prepared cream cheese, or cheese itself, or olives, or all of these in quantity – something which in some Estonian restaurants in the summer would set you back at least €5-€10.

It was not uncommon for some locally produced schnapps, watermelon, dessert or even a bottle of wine to be brought to you, on the house, after lunch or dinner. This is not all about getting something for free, which, it must be admitted, of course always makes the heart sing, but about feeling that you, as a customer are cared for, even as it is more than certain that you will barely visit that same place again during your trip, if at all, simply because you want to sample as many different things as possible, to gain in experience.

At one of the tavernas we went to, following a delicious, plentiful and somewhat cheaper lunch in comparison with Estonia, and with the attendant treat on the house, the waiter who served us simply cited the law of hospitality.

 He said that they are really hospitable in Greece, and treat tourists as well as possible. One reason, the waiter said, is that when he travels abroad, alone, he would like to receive the same warm treatment too. "Sometimes I get that, sometimes I don't," he noted.

Now, as a logical continuation from the previous point, we should start cursing Estonia's summer service and its pricing policy. But isn't this a topic as eternal as the columns adorning the Acropolis in Athens? We hear the same thing every summer, and the same concerns repeat themselves year in, year out. 

Besides, things are not hopelessly bad for us, either, I know of at least two spots to eat and drink in, in the summer capital, Pärnu, where the service is essentially impeccable through the year. That small town of Pärnu, too. Maybe that's enough.

However, I would really recommend owners, managers and waiters at Estonian restaurants, bars, cafes and buffets to at least go to Greece for a spot of self-education and to learn from the service and culinary culture there, and try to offer what is common in that country. 

It doesn't matter if in Estonia the only two visitors to the buffet wend up waiting for the menu and service for about a quarter of an hour, while in a village restaurant in Greece, different hot meals and cold drinks can be served simultaneously to a whole bus full of tourists, while afterwards the house gives out ice cream to all and sundry – and who doesn't love ice cream?

Since Estonians are always interested in 'what the elephant thinks of us,' let it be noted in conclusion that Estonia is actually known about a little in Greece.

Not a lot, but a little at least. A chef at one restaurant who came by to ask how the food tasted, and immediately asked where we are from, won spotters' badge for his knowledge of Estonia.

When he heard that we were from Estonia, he immediately responded: "Estonia? Tallinn! Tiit Sokk!"*

Just like that...

*Tiit Sokk, 58, is a retired basketball player and later coach often cited as one of the very best European point guards of his generation and as the greatest Estonian basketball player in history.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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