I STUMBLED into a cafe at lunchtime. It was one of those establishments in which it becomes immediately obvious that the owners have bought their chairs in batches from ArtfullyMismatched.com and even the cruets have beards and tattoos.
There was a whiff of coffee in the air. Good coffee, too. Nobody in that place had ever had to break a golden foil seal with a spoon handle. I don’t drink coffee, of course. It’s just evil Bovril. But I like the smell.
But what I really like is tea, and I knew that the tea in this place would come in a brightly coloured teapot, with a small bottle of milk, and sugar in sachets, because nobody has yet worked out a cute way to serve sugar, and I would have to specify English breakfast tea or risk a rogue herbal.
The point is, I was at home. This is how cafes are now. I understand them and have even come to terms with them. I know there will be a panini press behind the counter, the cakes – one gluten-free option, one vegan – will come from “a place down the road” and will be under clear plastic cloches next to the till, and there will be coriander ruining the carrot soup.
“This’ll do,” I said to my companion, and my glasses immediately steamed up, owing to my mask. This is also how cafes are now.
“There aren’t any tables free,” she said. She was right. Social distancing was totally messing up my lunch. “We could wait. Or there’s a table outside,” she added.
“I’m not sitting on an English pavement in the middle of autumn unless I’ve been made homeless,” I said.
“You might be,” she replied.
We left the cafe. “There’ll be another one down the road,” I stated. And I was right. We walked straight into another one…
This one was not how cafes are now. It was how cafes were then. It was full of wipe-clean tablecloths and doilies. And pensioners. And these were not the cool sort they have nowadays, who don’t remember the sixties because they were there. These people were probably also pensioners when I was a child. I cannot remember the last time I went into any sort of eating place and lowered the customers’ average age.
I looked at the walls, which clearly hadn’t been decorated since they dropped the “Farm” from the title of Emmerdale, and thought, “Well, that takes me back”. I fiddled with the COVID scanner app, which informed me that I would be checked in at the establishment until midnight. I was sure this would not be the case.
“Told you we should have waited,” my companion taunted me, as we sat down. “I could be eating a courgette frittata by now.” “No,” I said. “It’ll be good,” I lied. “Retro.”
I had a look at what this place had to offer. There was one type of tea on the menu: “Tea”. But there was a section on the menu labelled “Paninis”. Look, I know and you know that “panini” is already plural, but these people were making an effort. Maybe there was a young chef, in his late fifties, who had come in with his fancy ways, trying to drag the cafe into 2004, and who was I to discourage him?
There was a chicken, mozzarella, and chorizo panini on offer. I applauded this young buck’s attempt to fuse together the cuisines of Italy, Spain, and, I don’t know, Kentucky? It sounded delicious, and, at the same time, the only thing on the menu I’d willingly choose.
The young waitress came over to take our order. My companion went recklessly off-menu “Instead of a cheese toastie, can I have a cheese, tomato, and onion toastie, please? And do you do decaf coffee? Well, can I have a flat white, but decaf?”
The waitress’s head must have been all of a whirl. But she was on safer ground with me. “Can I have a tea, please? And the chicken panini.” She acquiesced and scurried off.
“I thought you were having the chicken, mozzarella, and chorizo panini,” my companion said.
“You said ‘chicken’…”
“It’s literally the only chicken panini on the menu. I think I’ll be OK,” I scoffed, in anticipation of scoffing. Apart from anything else, a man with a lisp attempting to pronounce “chorizo” correctly is just asking for trouble.
The waitress came back with some sort of coffee, and tea in a metal flip-top knuckle-burning pot. Retro for a reason. I had already drunk one cup before the waitress eventually returned with our food.
“Your toastie looks nice,” I said, as I bit into my chicken panini. As soon as I did, I understood what had happened.
The waitress must have entered the kitchen and informed the chef, “We’ve got that sort at table 11. She wants, wait for this, tomato and onion on her cheese toastie.”
“But that’s not on the menu!” he would have spluttered.
“You’re going to have to nip down to the Co-op for an onion. We haven’t got many tomatoes either. Oh, dear, oh dear. Is that them over there? What about the other one, the weirdo in the steamed-up glasses?”
“Oh, that’s the other thing,” the waitress would have said. “He wants, get this, a chicken panini.”
“What, no mozzarella and chorizo?! Go and ask him.”
“I’m telling you, that’s what he said,” the waitress definitely would have replied. “A chicken panini, he said. He was very specific.”
“God bless us! Aren’t some people funny?”
And so I found myself gnawing on a sandwich that was so dry that, if the manufacturers of those silica gel packets were worried about them getting moist, they could have used my chicken panini.
And it was accompanied by some undressed salad leaves with no tomato – “It’s OK, just get an onion. I can use his tomato on her toastie” – and some crisps. These crisps boasted the only seasoning on the plate. It’s a sad day when the ready salted crisp garnish is your meal’s flavour bomb.
And there was no tea left in the tiny pot. My mouth looked like one of those plastic tea-towel holders.
“Get them to take it back and get another one,” my companion said, through a mouthful of delicious toastie.
“I can’t!” I said, trying to suck some moisture out of a lettuce leaf.
“Why not?” she asked, enjoying my tomato.
“What am I supposed to say? ‘Excuse me, waitress, remember I asked you for a chicken panini? Well, what you’ve brought me here is a chicken panini?’”
I paid the bill and left a tip – I am not a monster – and exited. We walked past the first cafe. It was empty.