I FIND dining out to be something of an ordeal. It’s a thrill ride of anxiety during which so many things can go wrong, and I have little control over them, like a Labour leadership election.
This fear of a bad dining experience can strike at any establishment. It can strike at one of the Argos-like collection points at a big McDonald’s, where I am convinced somebody is going to filch my burger bag and abscond.
It can strike at the production line at Subway, in which I come under pressure to make so many rapid decisions about the constitution of my sandwich that I might as well have made my own at home.
And it can strike too at one of those very posh restaurants where they have plates and cutlery, where you order while sitting down, and where they only ask you to pay AFTER you’ve finished your meal.
As a result, I find that the less time I have to spend in the restaurant, the better, which is probably why I pop up out of my seat like a meerkat as soon as I have finished eating, waving frantically at the waiting staff, and miming the writing of a cheque in an attempt to obtain the bill at the earliest opportunity. This is despite the fact nobody who waits in the sort of restaurants I visit even remembers cheques.
Essentially, nobody has ever wanted me to leave the restaurant quickly more than me. Or so I thought…
I went with a friend some time ago to one of those small plates restaurants. It was not exactly tapas because not all of the food was Spanish, but you understand the sort of establishment to which I refer. I am yet to be convinced that small plates restaurants are not some sort of scam to fool us into buying simultaneously too much food and not enough food, but that is by the by.
I was not sure how much to order, but I was told the advice was that I should order one more plate than I thought I would need.
“But what if the amount I think I need is the amount that I actually need?” I asked.
“Just… Just order,” my friend said.
Nevertheless, the food was sufficiently tasty, and our waitress was sufficiently friendly, and for a moment I was able to forget that I hate dining out. Obviously then we had to ask for a glass of Coke three times because nothing ever goes completely right.
Anyway, as the meal progressed, I speared the next to last wedge of patatas bravas with my fork. Was that a patata brava? And why should a potato be brave? I didn’t know. I didn’t do Spanish, I did Ancient Greek in case I ever went to Ancient Greece. I dipped the spud in some garlic mayonnaise, and bit off half of it.
I approved very strongly, and put the rest in my mouth. And as I went for the last one, the waitress reappeared and whisked the plate away.
“What?” I said, when my mouth was no longer full. “She just took the last patata brava.”
“Did she? I wasn’t looking,” my friend said. “She must have thought we were finished.”
“There was one left! How can that be finished? That’s the opposite of finished.”
The waitress returned. She made a grab for the plate with the last croquette. My friend was ready for her. “We haven’t finished with that.” The waitress was shocked to the point of insult.
And so for the next 10 minutes she kept returning to the table. “Have you finished with that? How about that one?” she would say. I am not sure why. Maybe I had ordered so many things they had run out of small plates. My nerves were shredded. It was like playing a restaurant version of Operation.
“Shall we have pudding?” my friend said.
“I don’t think we dare.” I said. I did my meerkat impression. “Can we have the b…” I started. The waitress shoved it under my nose before I finished the sentence.
We paid, and then we slid off the banquettes. We turned back to pick up our bags from the seats, but we could not reach them. The waitress had already started cleaning the table.
“Can we just…?” I said.
“I’ve just got to do this bit,” the waitress said. “Can you wait a second?”