In reviewing the book Dishing it Out by Robert Appelbaum, a scholarly, insightful and funny meditation on the restaurant in modern western culture, I found myself making withdrawals from my own restaurant memory bank. In particular, one ancient episode of eavesdropping which has stayed with me for more than 30 years.
I’d like to take you back to a seafood restaurant on the north side of Sydney harbour, a place that we – my work colleagues and I – used a lot. We worked in advertising and this entailed many lunches: obligatory in that business, at that time. We knew the owner, the owner’s wife, the owner’s mistress all the waiters and cooks. In other words, we felt comfortable there.
The restaurant was in a large room behind the main business of the business, which was a wine bar. North facing, with high windows at that northern end of the building. Were there views over the harbour? I don’t recall. But I do recall the luminous afternoon light flooding in through those north windows, filtered through the leaves of tall trees.
On this particular day, a gorgeous summer’s afternoon, we had eaten well, had opened the second bottle of wine (‘only a fool breaks the two bottle rule’), and we glowed with post-prandial bonhomie and silly grins for our fellow lunchers.
At the next table to us were a couple, boy and girl, both of whom I knew slightly. She was in her early twenties, blonde, glowing not just from the food and wine but with sex. She radiated a healthy and almost visible sexuality. She squirmed in her seat as she laughed and leaned towards her companion. He was English, a little older than her, blonde, tall and if not handsome, attractive. I am amazed that as I write this I can see them so clearly. There was very little doubt that when they left their table, they were not going back to work.
There was, about that moment, those two, something essential about the restaurant experience. Writing elsewhere on this theme, I said that every meal in a restaurant is a live performance, each table a separate audience, that there are no rehearsals, no out of town tryouts, no scriptwriters and no special effects. Just a waiter and a maitre’d between the chef, the brigade and the customer.
This is especially and perhaps only true in the high end restaurants, not necessarily in the kind of place you go to sit and eat, the cafe or the diner. But even then, a certain level of theatricality can slip in.
But in those high-toned places, like the one in which I was observing that young couple, a mood, an atmosphere is created which is not unlike that created in a real theatre, or a cinema. You are taken out of yourself, away from your dreary daily problems. While you are seated at table, being served (hopefully) wonderful food and feted by skilled, attentive and gentle waiters, the problems of the office, the lost account, the unhappy marriage, the dwindling bank account float away and burst, like bubbles. Not only is the restaurant a theatre, but if it is a successful one, then you are left with the feeling that you are a star.
A colleague of mine went on a tour of the Michelin three star restaurants of Paris. The only difference, she concluded, between them and those a little further down the star trail was the level of fawning: the more you paid, the more you were fawned upon. I don’t know about you, but I am not fawned upon very often. And when I am, it is a heady experience.
So those two young people floated out of that restaurant having, for the two or so hours they were there, been treated like kings and queens, movie or rock stars. Into a cab, back to his or her place and into bed, still tingling with adulation.
That is what a great restaurant experience can do for you. That is the apogee of the experience.
Sadly, there is a postscript to that story. Life intruded harshly on both those people as they added years to their lives. There was great pain and sadness on the one hand, and on the other flaws and failure. I wonder whether they remember that afternoon of their shining as well as I do.