"After a good dinner one can forgive anybody, even one's own relations." – Oscar Wilde
Do you often go out to dine at a restaurant? And I mean a proper restaurant not something like the fast food, “family restaurants”, a high class restaurant with tablecloths on tables, fresh flowers and candles, waiters that wait on you with consummate skill, where the food is delicious and the occasion is made perfect and special for that wonderful someone you are accompanying? Well, we sometimes make a special night of it and we go out to such a restaurant – not too often, but when we do, we wish everything to go right and the night to be truly memorable and special – and it mostly is!
Sometimes, however, the experience is tainted with all the things that could ever possibly go wrong, and as Murphy would have it, they do go wrong spectacularly! This blog is triggered by a recent experience at a restaurant, which reminded me of several other occasions (thankfully rather unusual in a clutch of usually excellent ones!), where to dine out has become a terrible ordeal rather than the culinary delight it should have been.
Firstly, when you arrive at the restaurant (on time!) and you give details of your booking to the Maitre D’ there is no record of your reservation. The restaurant is busy and almost every table is occupied. Finally after much arguing and to-ing and fro-ing, a table is got for you in a poky little corner in front of the door that leads into the kitchen. There is a constant sound of pots and pans clanking, dishes rattling and agitated conversations between the chef and several sous-chefs.
After an inordinately long time, the waiter comes to take your order. While you are ordering, his mobile phone rings (!!!!!!!!!!) and he goes off to answer it. He comes back, takes your order and almost immediately returns to tell you that what you have ordered is no longer available. After a new order, the drinks waiter brings the wine list and recommends a wine that is overpriced and which you know tastes like cat’s pee. You order the cocktails and wine which is definitely not the recommended one (but still overpriced!) and then you wait. And wait, and wait, and wait… There is much activity next to you as seemingly thousands of waiters go back and forth through the kitchen doors laden with platters of hot steaming food, but nothing turns up at your table.
You try to catch your waiter’s eye, but he manages to ignore you most adroitly. You try to catch any waiter’s eye, but they are all so busy and you are waved to, have reassuring things whispered to you as they rush by and generally, well… you are ignored! By this stage your stomach is making loud rumbling noises and your patience has been exhausted. Just as you are about to go to the Maitre D’ and complain most vehemently, your waiter comes to your table and ceremoniously takes your napkin, unfolds it, waves it about and plops it on your lap. I don’t know about you, but I hate that. Some bread rolls materialise and they are decidedly the frozen variety that should be put in the oven before serving. These have been baked in some previous incarnation, but they are wan and cold and their centre remains decidedly doughy.
The entrée arrives. It is definitely not what you ordered. You complain to the waiter who looks at you suspiciously and then prepares to whisk the plates away with an exasperated look heavenwards, but a sobering thought hits you: It has taken 50 minutes to get this food, if it goes back into the kitchen who knows when the dish you ordered will arrive? Another 50 minutes? 70, 80, 90 minutes? Tomorrow morning? You hang on to your plate, after wresting from the waiter’s rapacious hands. He begins to argue with you, saying that if it is not what you ordered you should not eat it. You manage to hold onto the precious food and fend the waiter off, but only because his mobile phone rings again and he goes off to answer it.
The food is bland, unidentifiable and chewy in a way that seems to mimic bubble gum. It could be seafood, but maybe it is some kind of meat. Perhaps it is textured soy protein and hence organic and produced in an agriculturally sustainable manner – that would be the only excuse for its disgusting taste and texture. By this stage your drinks have not arrived yet. To your surprise the drinks waiter comes straight to your table when you wave to him. He is desolated and extremely apologetic about the drinks not having been dispatched to you yet. He rushes off to rectify the situation. You try to make pleasant conversation and look at your dining companion’s eyes, attempting to remedy the experience so far by immersing yourself in their double pools filled with love.
Some commotion in the kitchen with a particularly loud series of clangs seems to herald the arrival of your main course. Your waiter arrives and notices that the entrée dishes have not been taken away. Your main course disappears back into the kitchen and he comes out to retrieve your dirty plates. The wine still has not arrived. Five minutes tick away after your waiter goes into the kitchen with your plates. Ten minutes, 15, and when you decide to go into the kitchen and retrieve your meal yourself, your waiter appears and plops your main course in front of you. The food seems nice! It is what you ordered and there is just the right amount of everything on the plate, quite aesthetically arranged.
The waiter makes a big show of bringing to the table an enormous pepper grinder that is grotesquely carved. After you nod your assent to have some pepper freshly ground onto your food, he twists the top once and two grains of pepper fall out. The grinder is spirited away and you proceed to pick up your cutlery. However, at that stage the drinks arrive - all of your drinks, at the same time: The water, the cocktails and the wine. A great show is made of opening the wine and some poured to be tasted. The wine is white and warm. Very warm, as though it has been heated. There is no ice bucket in sight and you ask for one. The drinks waiter looks at you superciliously and mumbles something about the wine being at “cellar temperature” while going away in a huff.
The cocktails are too sugary when they should have been dry and the water is decidedly brackish. Nevertheless, you valiantly proceed! This meal will be enjoyed! The steak is too rare, in fact, you could have sworn it was barely cooked at all. And cold. Everything is cold. Have you ever tried to eat cold steak and icy mashed potatoes and gelid butter French beans? Not nice… But you are still hungry and you desperately try to make the best of it. Not that complaining would have done much good, had you found anyone to complain to – all the waiters and the Maitre D’ have disappeared in some unthinkably distant and utmostly secret place.
You look desperately at your dining companion and at each other’s plates and bravely try to cut through raw bleeding meat, attempt to demolish the stodge masquerading as mashed potato and to separate the congealed mass of icy cold, buttered French beans, all washed down with warm white wine. This will not do. You decide you’ve had enough and call for the bill.
Suddenly you are surrounded by a host of obsequious waiters, all beaming at you asking you whether you enjoyed the meal, bowing and strutting, making a fuss of you while the extravagant bill arrives, which has listed on it together with what was ordered (and not consumed, in any case), several other dishes you did not order and which never appeared on your table, including a fruit and cheese platter and two special chocolate degustation desserts. After much negotiation the bill is settled and you walk out of the restaurant, stomach still rumbling and the sour taste of the warm wine still in your mouth. The waiters stare daggers into your back as you did not leave a tip…
As you drive out of the (outrageously expensive) car-parking establishment, you spy the twin golden arches beckoning to you from the gloom somewhere int eh distance. Yes, it’s a “family restaurant” coming up ahead and without even thinking about it you turn your indicator on, drive up and order two giant hamburgers (and yes, we’ll have fries with those, thanks!)…