I have been asked – repeatedly, time and again, over and over in the course of many years – by various visitors and expats why is restaurant and bar service in Bulgaria so bad. Waiters and waitresses, I am being told, are the worst in Europe. They are surly, slow, do not react to customer demands, and do not count out your change when they do not overcharge. They seem to be constantly angry.
I have one answer to these charges. I tell whoever happens to be expressing his or her dissatisfaction with Bulgarian restaurant service that it is not just restaurant staff that are so nasty. Every area of the service sector in Bulgaria's economy experiences staffing difficulties, so many businesses have to do with whatever "human material" (to quote Bulgaria's Former Prime Minister Boyko Borisov) they have access to. At this point my pals usually look up in disbelief. OK, I say. Try hiring a plumber, a tile layer, or an electrician. Those who have spent more than a month in Bulgaria tend to understand.
It is of course silly to generalise as some restaurants and bars actually have excellent and friendly staff. Significantly, there are some fabulous places in Sofia and elsewhere, all of which have carried their commercial messages in this journal through the years.
Truth be told, however, Bulgarian service generally falls in two categories: it is either bad and nonchalant or bad and hostile.
Consider these two events that happened one fine day in June (actually, the first fine day after a long rainy spell), in Sofia. A group of friends from a country in northwestern Europe took a long stroll in Central Sofia. Having seen all the sites along Tsar Osvoboditel Boulevard, we ventured into the park to take in the notorious Red Army monument.
Then we decided to stop for a drink and a bite at what seemed like a wonderful open air café nearby. Some of my friends went out to the bar because they thought they could buy a few things there. No, said an young man who obviously was in charge. Sit down and you will be served.
My friends did not speak any Bulgarian and consequently did not understand what they were being ordered to do. So, in the minute or two before I made my appearance at the bar, they lingered on, pointing fingers at bags of chips and trying to strike up a conversation with the waitresses who were breezing to and fro. Are you Bulgarian? – the man in charge inquired. Then tell them to sit down like normal people, don't stand in the way and someone will come to take your order. Be polite! Behave yourselves!
In the mind of that young man, not more than 25-26 years of age, we were not normal people. He was normal. We were intruders, nasty Westerners, uninvited good-for-nothings who had undeservedly become filthy rich and now had the audacity to want to share some of our euros with him. This is an example of the first category of Bulgarian service – bad and nonchalant. We were actually given some food (though we had to wait for about an hour for them to prepare a few Shopskas). For an example of the other type of service behaviour, the bad and hostile, read on.
We continued our venture into the service sector of Sofia and ended up in front of the National Theatre. Three or four icecream vans were parked there, inviting us to sample what they had to offer. To avoid having to queue for too long, my friends spread out, leaving me with no option but to run between the icecream vans trying to translate sladoled davka as something other than chewing gum icecream. As I reached one van which advertised itself as a major Western brand I observed the following picture. A couple stood in front pointing at some pink icecream and holding a 20-leva note. We would like to have some of this and then some of that, they begged. Lev i chetirideset, the man replied. We would like to have that pink icecream and some of that brown icecream, the coupled said. Lev i chetirideset, the man said. No, no – can we have some pink icecream and then some brown icecream, the couple insisted, thinking that the man did not understand their English just as they did not understand his Bulgarian.
I chipped in. Can I help at all? – I inquired. Tell these people a ball costs 1.40 leva. Yes, I know, but can we have some pink and some brown icecream, please. Tell them I have no change. Tell them to go to change their money and come back.
It was a fine Sunday afternoon in Sofia, the finest after a long rainy spell. Other customers had showed up and in that inimitable Bulgarian way of queuing and not queuing at the same time had started ordering balls of icecream for themselves. We were about to lose the man's attention as he was turning to the much easier lot.
You don't have enough change for 20 leva? – I asked. My question turned out to be a terrible insult, the final straw that broke the icecream seller's back. F*ck off, he shouted. Go to another stand. Even if you have exact change I won't serve you. Get the hell out of here, you fat old man! Bring these bastards with you.
The icecream van of that man bore the insignia of a major Western company. Presumably, it belonged to it. Presumably, that major Western company had instructed their staff how to treat customers without having to tell them to bugger off.
Bulgarian service, just like about everything else in Bulgaria including politics, is a complex subject and easy explanations are therefore unavailable. The standard excuse that bad service is a leftover from the times of Communism when the government ran everything from factories to shops and restaurants is inadequate. Bulgaria has not been a Communist country for over 25 years. Significantly, the two service sector employees described above were about that age – which means that they could not have possibly had any living memory from the time their dads and mums had to bribe doormen to get a place at a dimly lit table in a damp Commie restaurant.
The fact that the service sector people are underpaid is also not quite an adequate explanation. Waiters and waitresses in Bulgaria do get salaries – and they certainly get tips. In a country where everyone is underpaid, their predicament is not that bad, or at least it is not worse than that of bus drivers, nurses and school teachers.
One would have thought that in this environment a bit of extra cash will open up the iron gates to the hearts and minds of Bulgaria's waiters. Wrong! If you experiment with tipping Bulgarian staff, you are bound to discover that the difference between a normal tip and no tip at all might prompt an aboutface from bad and nonchalant to bad and hostile service.
One important thing to know about tips is that you never... know. Some waiters might try to do better if they knew beforehand you would tip, others won't. On the other hand, many would be just offended if you told them at the start you would tip them if they were good.
So, if this is not about Communist mentality and not about cold hard cash, what is it? Why are Bulgarian waiters so different than the ones in Turkey and Greece, even in Serbia and Romania?
To give a relatively balanced answer to this question, you would have to consider the overall situation in Bulgaria which can be described as a patchwork of interwoven controversies. On the one hand, waiters want to make money, on the other – they are reluctant to work for it. On the one hand, many in Bulgaria complain about unemployment and so on, on the other – it is extremely difficult to find anyone qualified or willing to do a job against payment. On the one hand, Bulgarians especially young Bulgarians are prepared to work like horses if they find themselves in London. On the other hand, they will not put in a tenth of that energy if they have to do it in Bulgaria. On the one hand, Bulgarians will send in applications for jobs and attend interviews. On the other hand, once they do get a job they will be indignant. "I am not slaving to either customers or employers," I've heard 22-year-old bar maids say.
Sadly, the best explanation for Bulgaria's notoriously bad service may be in a joke. The mayor of a backwater village with very high unemployment found an unorthodox way to provide some work for its residents. He summoned everyone able-bodied in the village square, and told them: "I have jobs for you. You will be cleaning the streets of the village. I have no money to pay you, but whatever you find in the streets will be yours." So, the villagers started cleaning the streets the next day and one of them was quick to find a wallet containing a thousand dollars. The man looked into the wallet, saw the money, counted it, then thought for a second, put the money back in the wallet and threw it away: "I am not going to work from the first day!"
WHAT NOT TO EXPECT IN BULGARIAN RESTAURANTS
This is an incomplete list of things you should not expect in Bulgarian restaurants regardless of how posh or expensive they appear to be
Menu for everyone
At better places, a group of four will likely get four sets of menus. If you are over four, however, this is unlikely. Menus will sometimes be split in two – one for food and one for drinks.
Really hot food
We have covered the Bulgarian's fear of hot and cold foodstuffs on numerous other occasions in this journal, but to put it in a nutshell: this is a country where mothers will order their children to wait for the soup to cool down and then will never allow them to have really cold mineral water. Waiters know this and tend to abide quite strictly.
One side effect to this is that if you order mineral water you will be asked whether you want it warm or cold. Do bear in mind that "warm" in this case means "at room temperature," not heated up.
Food arrival all at the same time
Some things take longer to prepare than others. This continues to be a major bafflement for Bulgarian chefs and waiters. Your food will arrive at the table as it leaves the kitchen rather than in the order you are supposed to eat it. If you are lucky, it will cover the distance between the kitchen and the table quickly, and you will get it while it is still hot.
However, bear in mind that in all likelihood some members of your company will be left without food because what they ordered takes longer to prepare than what you ordered.
Ordering the Western way, at the beginning of a dinner, is very confusing in Bulgaria. Bulgarians order drinks and salads first, then relax, then order the main course and more drinks, then they relax, and then they may order deserts and other drinks. So, if you order everything at the same time you may end up with kyopoolu and icecream at the same time.
Refusing to pay
This is unheard of and likely to cause a major scandal. If you decide to return your starter because it is bad or rotten, what will probably happen is the boss will come over, smell it and declare there is nothing wrong with it. You will be told that this is the way it is supposed to be. If you insist, you might be able to get an alternative but you will probably be required to pay for what you have ordered.
Complaints over the temperature of food, the efficiency of service etc are unlikely to be taken any notice of at all.