The Australia Dairy Company was founded in 1970 in the Hong Kong suburb of Jordan and has established itself as something of an icon in the island’s budget dining scene. Despite the name, the restaurant’s only Antipodean connection is the somewhat tenuous claim that one of the original owners worked on a farm down under in the 1940s.
As it transpired, the dubious name was the least of the crimes committed against dining norms by this particular establishment.
The restaurant is famous for the long queue of eager punters that normally forms outside its door so we were delighted that none was in sight when we arrived on a warm Saturday evening. Sarah carefully examined the menu (in Chinese, obviously, no quarter given to the tourist here) displayed in the window before attracting the attention of a passing staff member to ask if this was the daytime or evening menu. The waiter, head cocked to one side, regarded her coolly, his expression a heady mixture of pity, contempt, incredulity and indifference. Finally, after a short period of time, he apparently decided that that the question was so idiotic that he wasn’t going to bother answering it at all and walked off.
We looked at each other in slight disbelief for a few seconds before a different waiter appeared and Sarah asked him the same question. He barked in the affirmative that this was indeed a menu so, deciding not to risk any further enquiries, we headed inside.
To be fair at least we couldn’t say we weren’t warned. Describing the service in the Australia Dairy Company as rude would be to do the word a massive disservice. This was studied, practiced, performed rudeness; the art of the abrupt; a burlesque of the brusque; Fawlty-esque, pantomime stuff. It’s all part of the show and we lapped it up.
I would like to say that the waiter showed us to our table but that would give undue credit to the ledge he gestured dismissively towards. A cloth used for wiping tables hung from the partition separating it from the adjoining table and two miniature stools sat below it. These were fine for Sarah but, as I am a normal-sized human, it was something of an effort to contort my body sufficiently to perch under our shelf for two.
We quickly ordered. We knew what we were getting – everyone knows what they are getting at the Australia Dairy Company – the set menu; although we jazzed up ours with some Hong Kong style French toast. In the seconds (this is not an exaggeration) that passed before our food arrived we gazed at the tumult erupting around us in the fluorescently lit restaurant. The noise level was incredible as white-coated waiters scurried around, seeking new and imaginative ways to abuse the patrons; to our left a bemused looking tourist couple looked even more confounded when they were ordered to shuffle round their tiny table to accommodate two local Chinese.
First to arrive was a cup of Hong Kong tea which was banged down with such force that half of it slopped all over the ledge. No apology was sought or, obviously, offered. The rest of the dinner followed quickly (and I mean quickly) – scrambled egg on toast with ham, a bowl of macaroni and the aforementioned French toast. The tea was unspeakably vile – a consequence of using condensed milk – and the bowl of macaroni was everything you can hope for from a bowl of macaroni.
The scrambled egg, however, was something to behold – rich, creamy (as befits something that was probably 60% cream) and moreish. Hong Kong French toast is basically the same as the western style other than the fact that a slab of butter is placed on the top slice which melts quickly and drizzles over the bread, combining with an (un)healthy glug of maple syrup. I could feel my arteries hardening just looking at it. As you would anticipate from a small plate of food containing more than one thousand calories, it tasted marvellous.
A final insult awaited when we asked for the bill. The summoned waiter poked each plate dismissively with his pen, scrawled down the total before theatrically ripping the top sheet off his notepad and thrusting it in my direction. Instinctively, and equally theatrically, I snatched it from him before he gestured towards the door twice with his thumb, an action that has only verbal translation; the second word being “off”. He did at least have the good humour to break into a broad, toothy grin at this final affront which we could only reciprocate.
Timed from first insult to last, the entire Australia Dairy Company experience lasted less than fifteen minutes but the memories will linger a lot longer than that. We emerged into the pulsating streets of Hong Kong dazed, ever so slightly nauseous from the richness of the food but both wearing unshakeable smiles. I’ve had whole nights at stand-up comedy gigs where I’ve laughed less than I did in the quarter of an hour spent in the Australian Dairy Company. I found myself craving bad service afterwards, desperate to be scorned or derided by some inhospitable hospitality worker somewhere.
The next evening we dined in the two Michelin star Shang Palace at the Shangri-La Hotel in Kowloon. The staff were unfailingly polite in every respect – they bowed, they scraped, no request was too difficult, no enquiry was met with anything less than immediate and helpful assistance. Truly world-class service.
A more sanitised version of this blog will soon appear at www.thernbdiary.com