COLUMN: November 14, 2013

IT HAS occurred to me that I do not actually like going out to eat.

I am not saying that I do not enjoy food. I do. Not a day goes by without me actually eating some – in fact, I’ve come to consider it an essential part of my day.

But the actual experience of eating out fills me with anxiety. And sometimes breadsticks.

And this is true whether it is an upscale restaurant, in which the menus do not feature the word “and” – for example, “pigeon, textures of cabbage, home- pickled onion, banana-flavour Toffo” – or if it is a restaurant in which the waiter calls you “guys”, or if it is a restaurant in which there are pictures of the food above the counter.

I do not mind the bit in the middle of eating out – the actual eating part. But I do have serious difficulties with the practice of waiters asking me how my meal is while I’m chewing the first mouthful. “I can’t possibly know,” I want to say, “I didn’t manage to get a sample of every piece of food on the plate onto my fork.”

I do not, of course, I merely mumble something while trying not to give a thumbs-up sign, and force it down my gullet in case there’s a follow-up question – “Do you like my hair?” or “Can you see this spot?”

Why they ask is baffling. It just seems needy. If there’s something wrong with my food the only way they are going to find out is if they receive a letter from my solicitor.

I am as likely to complain about the food as I am to twerk in the middle of the restaurant or David Dimbleby is to get an anatomically-incorrect scorpion tattoo on his shoulder, i.e. improbable but not impossible.

And when I have finished eating, I am even more uncomfortable. I just want to leave. I don’t want to sit and chat, stretching out coffee after coffee. I can do that somewhere else.

Perhaps it is a holdover from my childhood, when I was taught to move out of the way and let others pass, but I am always painfully aware that restaurants are businesses and that they need my table so that the waiter can ask new people what their meal is like.

But I am incapable of catching a waiter’s eye at this point, invisible like a ninja. I suppose I could call out for the bill, but who wants to be the sort of person who calls out “Waiter!” in a restaurant? It is a wafer-thin mint away from clicking one’s fingers.

So I sit there, jogging my knee and occasionally raising my hand until the planets come into alignment and I am in the line of sight of a waiter, and my ordeal is ended.

These days I have a new source of anxiety, ever since a time I dined alone, as I occasionally must. It’s difficult to get people to agree to eat with me for the reasons outlined above.

I was actually enjoying my meal. The waiter had left and it did not seem that he was going to come back. I was maybe three-quarters of the way through my plate, when a thought suddenly occurred to me. I wished I’d had that thought before my meal arrived, but these things happen from time to time.

I left my table and visited the place whence my thoughts had wandered. I probably spent a bit too long in there because they had a Dyson Airblade hand dryer and it was the first time I’d used one. “This is like massaging a ghost,” I thought.

But when I returned to my table, the waiter had cleared it. My plate was gone. I still had a sausage left! I’d been saving it.

“Would you like to see the dessert menu?” the waiter asked.

I don’t enjoy confrontation in a dining environment, but this was going too far.

“You took my sausage,” I blurted out. I would have phrased it differently, but I wasn’t thinking properly.

“Oh, I’m sorry, sir. I thought you’d finished,” he said.

“No!” I said “I was…” – I didn’t want to say I’d been saving it – “… resting. Who leaves a whole sausage?!”

“I could get you another one,” the waiter said. I imagined a situation in which the waiter returned from the kitchen, carrying a plate on which rested a single sausage, garnished with a sprig of curly parsley.

I said no. The damage had already been done. Now I can never leave the table during a meal again.

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