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.