I am an unashamed foodie. This is a common trait I share with fellow Malaysians – our taste buds are honed from the multi-cultural, eclectic environment we were exposed to from birth. We can be eating Malay nasi lemak for breakfast, Indian roti canai for lunch and Chinese char kuey tieu for dinner. We do not think twice about it, we eat out all the time. And on top of that I spend more than ten years of my life in France and in the USA. So yes, I know about good food.
Being an immigrant in the UK, I search for good ethnic food. England is full of immigrants who brought their cuisine with them, and there are clusters of places such as in the different Chinatowns and in Birmingham’s Balti Triangle. There are Malaysian, Vietnamese, Thai, Indian, African, Japanese, Persian, Turkish etc restaurants.
There is so much choice – Open Table sends me email offers all the time, I can look up Trip Advisor for specific restaurants on reviews and in London there is also Time Out. But I still need to do so much research on my own. Why? Because I am a wheelchair user and not many guides advise you on accessibility. I travel and very often I eat out on my own. Some restaurants have ramps but there is no way you can know that until someone goes in and enquire. I often have to telephone individual restaurants ahead to ask about their accessibility. Some of those who take the calls do not understand me and it can be amusing at times.
‘What do you mean, accessible’? Don’t worry we can help you in, we have strong men here to carry you’ or ‘ But our toilet is upstairs and the lift is out of order’, ‘Yes, we are accessible, we have only one step’. My favourite response – ‘You have an electric wheelchair? Can you come in a normal wheelchair?’
As a disabled woman, some preliminary enquiries are better than landing myself in a compromising position by staff who insist on helping. It can be awkward as well in a small crowded space, customers can be pushing by you and the whole meal can become an unpleasant experience. And if you have to rely on staff to bring out a ramp, you cannot just leave of your own accord. I have yet to find a good Vietnamese restaurant that I can get in. There is one that I have frequented in Islington, but I need to sit outside, not a wise choice when summer is over. The waiter said his boss is busy with sorting out a new menu. Well that might be so, but he has lost my custom and that of my companions.
And of course there are times I eat with friends – some of them may even be other wheelchair users. In London Chinatown, I know only the Wong Kei (the staff no longer deserving of the reputation of being ‘rude’ anymore) which can cater for more than one wheelchair user comfortably. Having level access does not necessarily mean they can cater for more than one wheelchair user. Organising a party can be a nightmare job. Yes, there are other eateries which are accessible but it’s not just the access, the food has to be good and the prices, reasonable.