Restaurants are scary places

Restaurants scare me a little. Not in a zombies-in-the-cupboard sort of way. It is more to do with the very real threat of an awkward social encounter.

Unfortunately, I have not been bought up like a character from an American sitcom, going out to dinner every night to hastily advance the plot of a twenty minute programme. I have little experience of eating out. It’s kind of ironic because cooking is the one thing my parents can’t abide by. The way you see Nigella Lawson flaunt exotically around her kitchen like she’s having the time of her life could not be further from reality. I only eat if the dinner in question can be made in less than fifteen minutes and does not involve any cooking processes which include accents, like ‘sauté’.

My evening meals are a dispiriting turntable of culinary familiarity, switching between spaghetti bolognese, roast dinner and chicken curry, with little variation in between. As preparing dinner ranks below de-worming the dog as an enjoyable activity in my household, you’d think my parents would take every opportunity to eat out.

This is not the case. When relatives come down, we might go for a meal at the local carvery, but this is a poor substitute. I know I’m in a proper restaurant when I feel conscious that I am not au fait with the rules.

A few mates and I went into Brighton for a spot of Saturday dining and I prayed that someone else in my group knew the laws of combat. In The Lanes, an area of Brighton often described as “quaint” (which when translated means “pretty little shops which never sell anything”), we looked for a place to fill our stomachs. Someone suggested Nando’s, so we loitered in the doorway for a few minutes before a woman carrying a clipboard came bustling towards us, fighting through hordes of hungry patrons also waiting patiently.

“Table for four? I’m afraid we currently have a waiting time of around twenty-five minutes” she said, despite knowing full well that restaurant-speak for twenty-five minutes is “an hour if you’re lucky”. Not wanting to spend the majority of a Saturday evening staring longingly at someone else’s plate, we quickly fled.

After searching fruitlessly for a short while, we came across a little Italian eatery, called something with an unpronounceable name – the waitress said what sounded like “We hope you enjoy your meal at Frerebrioche” but she could have been welcoming us aboard the Starship Enterprise for all I knew.

First, we needed to scope out the prices, for we were all students (and hence tight). This is one reason why such encounters are awkward. For a good two minutes we were standing outside the restaurant, gazing at the menu with our eyes flicking immediately to the prices. The staff inside can see we are doing this, meaning that if we walk away, they will think we are cheapskates. If we enter, they will be wondering whether they should put up their prices to keep away scruffy layabouts like us.

We were received with a warm welcome nonetheless and took a table in the corner of the room. We were handed menus once more and sought to make our choices. This was not made easy by the numerous cigarette burns obscuring key details of the dishes (this was a classy place). Furthermore, I noticed that the menus were not only laminated, but laminated badly – it looked as if the paper inside was plastic intolerant. Most times when you receive a laminated menu, you are in a greasy spoon cafe and various unappetising pictures of full English breakfasts are badly photo-shopped into the text. It seemed completely out-of-context for a restaurant in The Lanes, the supposed heart of Brighton’s culture.

Despite the burns and poor lamination, we made our choices. I went for spaghetti bolognese (I’ve never known any different) and was humiliated when asked which pasta I would like.

“Pen” I said, confidently.

“Penné?” said the waitress, waspishly correcting my rudimentary Italian.

Perhaps she was being nice, making sure that I wouldn’t order the same thing elsewhere in case I receive a plateful of Biros. Just five minutes later, we were diving in to our food, having barely had enough time to take off our coats and order drinks. Even after dessert, we were seated for only half an hour. I wasn’t complaining because I was hungry. Yet at most fancy restaurants, the kind where an After Eight mint counts as the sixth course, you’d be fortunate to have been noticed by a surly maître d’ within half an hour.

I think they were trying to get rid of us. And when the tip we handed over amounted to loose change (most of which was coppers), I could see why.

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Lansley’s NHS bungling

The prognosis is not good. If I was Andrew Lansley’s medical practitioner, I would have to lean in gently, place a firm hand on his wrist and begin the next sentence with the words “I’m sorry”. Instead of bursting into tears and raising his hands to the sky asking “why me?”, he would simply get up out of his seat and walk out of the surgery with a smile on his face, promising that he’s doing the right thing.

When it comes to the Health Minister’s plans for the National Health Service, the patients are against it, the nurses are against it, the doctors are against it. Even the government are against it. Well, sort of – there’s a few Lib Dems looking a bit whey-faced in the corridors of the Houses of Parliament. Admittedly, this is not an irregular occurrence, as a glimpse at an opinion poll is enough to drain most Liberal Democrats of colour in their face. But they realise that they may have stepped over the line when it comes to backing the Tories.

Some have even taken to calling him Voldemort Lansley, which is a bit harsh. On Voldemort. He repeatedly says that he wishes to inject competition into the NHS. Obviously keeping patients alive is not a big enough challenge – they need a massive sports day or something. There is a history of bungling when it comes to our health service. Back in 2000, announcing the ‘NHS Plan’, the Department of Health’s own website’s first words on the matter are: “The NHS Plan outlines the vision of a health service designed around the patient”, which I suppose is better than it being designed around African elephants.

New strategies are often trumpeted as essential to repair our creaking hospitals and creakier doctors. Every few years a government bod will announce a new set of guidelines, which always promises better service but rarely delivers. When it comes to a patient in Accident & Emergency having an urgent transfusion, successive Ministers appear to be under the illusion that what is needed is more bureaucracy.

Last year, when momentum was gathering against the changes, the coalition announced it was to partake in a “listening exercise”, which makes it sound like David Cameron and Andrew Lansley are going to stand further apart from each other, shouting “Can you hear me now?”

Perhaps the most cynical aspect of the new measures is the stripping of the National Institute for Clinical Excellence’s powers. NICE have the grubby job of deciding what treatments the NHS can afford and what they can’t. Sometimes a drug is refused because it is too costly and does not provide value for money. They even have a mechanism where they work out how much it costs to keep a patient alive per year and acceptable drugs must be within a certain limit. Campaigners argue that you cannot put a price on people’s well-being but if this were the case, I’d be asking for a Malibu beach house on prescription.

It is both horrible and necessary work. If NICE weren’t there, we could be taken for a ride by the big pharmaceutical companies. It offers a standard-bearer for clinical medication and manufacturers know they must meet the guidelines or else be denied a license to sell via the NHS, hence meaning that standards improve. Without a professional yardstick to measure outcomes against, I could take a handful of jelly beans to my local health consortium and convince them that I held in my hands a life-saving wonder drug.

Another key aspect of the reforms is that GPs are going to be given powers to purchase healthcare for their patients, putting them in charge of health service budgets. Many GPs do not want this role and it is easy to see why; they can barely organise their waiting room sufficiently, so who knows how they will cope if their workplace is transformed into a free-market utopia? When money is being removed and workers are being cut from the NHS, it seems a little unsettling that the people being put in charge of your treatment also have to watch the pennies.

When the changes come in to effect, you’ll be hoping that the person ahead of you in the queue has a quick and cheap problem. If a stooped man with a hacking cough, a limp, a patch over one eye and a knife handle sticking out of his shoulder is called to see the doctor first, you’ll fear the worst.

Much opposition to the plans, according to the government, stems from the fact that people don’t understand the bill enough. Anna Soubry MP of the Health Department said “I will concede that we probably have not explained it in the simple plain terms it should be explained in”. It is quite obvious why: there are no simple terms to explain it in. What a tragic argument. You know someone has lost an argument when they say it’s because they haven’t explained it well enough. Communication is not the issue here.