I think it was Sinead O’Connor who first said: “I could eat my dinner in a fancy restew-raw-aw-aw-aw-awnt”. And with a voucher for a swanky eaterie burning a hole in the drawer at home, so can we..
A voucher for an expensive restaurant is like one hang-gliding lesson. It leads to an enjoyable experience but one that is unlikely to be repeated any time soon.
As Richard Bruton ponders how to create jobs in this country he could do worse than follow the Posh Restaurant Model. By the time we are ‘glided’ gently to our table, we have undergone intensive ushering. There’s a man standing at the door. He hands us off to Corridor Usher. In order to access the main area of the restaurant we have to negotiate a left turn through a doorway. Lest we become befuddled at this point a third person is on hand to direct us through our 90 degree angle. Where are received by another woman with a clipboard assisted by a fifth person who takes our coats.
Add in the waiters and chefs and, by my calculations, by opening Michelin starred restaurants all over the country the government could reduce unemployment by 63% as well as providing a huge boost to the foie gras industry. We sit down to eat. There is a brief stand-off as I attempt to pull out my own chair like some sort of common pedlar. A gentleman doesn’t do anything for himself. The waiter steps in to take control of the situation in case the incredible physical effort upsets the ligamentary balance of my delicate Dauphin’s wrists.
The menus are brought with a flourish. We open them and squeak a little at the prices. My wife whispers: “The starters cost more than my dress”. I understand her discomfort as I tug anxiously at my chain-store shirt. It’s perfectly fine but just not good enough for this place. In a restaurant like this you need to be wearing a shirt bought in a shop with lots of wood panelling. The man who sells it to you should be older than you, with neatly trimmed grey hair. Not a wet-gel-headed youth whose shirt is darker than his tie.
There are words on the menu which, although familiar, don’t seem right in this context.“Rabbit loin wrapped in pancetta with a veal farce, carrot and black cumin purée, rabbit shepherd’s pie, madeira and roast shallot jus”
The rabbit should certainly have a kick to it. We all know how active a rabbit’s loins are, if all the stories are to be believed. What can a veal farce be? Are tender pieces of bovine meat chasing each other around a plate, one carrying an inflatable doll while Benny Hill music plays? There’s so much going on in this menu. And they’ve misspelt ‘just‘.
We order. My wife orders something with lots of accented e’s. The precise name of my starter escapes me now but I think it was “patronised scallops with scientologist feta, ambiguous leek with a hint of bullied pear.” I hope it should tee me up nicely for the rabbit’s nerve-centre.
A waiter brings bread. We are given ONE slice of bread. These people clearly don’t understand the Irish diner. Bread is FREE food so it is our national birthright to eat as much of it as possible. If this means being too full for the main course and leaving a mortgage-payment’s worth of meat on your plate at the end, so be it. When the heroes of 1916 took over two biscuit factories, they were sending a very clear message about the new nation’s relationship with flour.
As we nibble our only bread we relax a little and look around us. The other diners fall into two rough categories. ‘Saved Up/Have Voucher’ and ‘We Do This All The Time’.
Saved Up Or Have Voucher are easy to spot. Couples like us, glancing around, slightly hunched in their chairs. It’s as if, at any moment, they expect to feel the weight of a waspish hand on their shoulder and a gentle yet firm whisper. “If you could just accompany me to the door, we can do this without making a scene”.
The other group are relaxed. They laugh loudly about past wealthy experiences. “We were nearly thrown out of the COUNTRY when they saw the state of the villa, honestly.” Skin is tanned in a gentle long-term way. Men with crisp shirts and blazers that say they are “good goys”. Women with authoritative hair and more jewelry than a Celtic burial mound. They order another bottle of wine in a relaxed fashion. Not like us: (Meal plus Wine) minus Voucher equals HOW MUCH?
I think back to my first tentative steps into the world of eating out at night – my debs. One classmate’s girlfriend let the staff know in no uncertain terms what she thought of the menu. “CMERE Don’t mind the Turkey’nHam like – J’havany CHIPS anabitta KETCHUP.”
The courses arrive. Though some of the choices take up less space on the plate than they did on the menu, the food is uniformly delicious and the portions are the right size. I grudgingly admit that maybe piling a plate with fourteen types of potato is not the only way to do things. We enjoy our food and begin to feel at home. I even trot out my father’s tried-and-tested line whenever he experiences any kind of luxury: “A fella could get used to this, hah?”
The bill is brought over – well hidden inside a leather wallet. At the other tables, golden-coloured cards are slipped discretely in. I wrestle the voucher out of my trouser pocket and slip it inside. It’s too bulky for the wallet and peeps out inappropriately. The waiter whisks it away.
While we wait, I pay a visit to the ‘restrooms’. I use that egregiously American term on purpose. ‘Restroom’ is used by all types of establishments in this country to describe the toilet, regardless of quality, even where the word ‘soakpit’ might be more appropriate. Here in the swanky restaurant though, this is indeed a restful room. There is soft music playing. The handtowels are so comforting I consider stealing one and keeping it as a blanky.
On my way back to the table, a man intercepts me. “Sir… About this voucher….” My heart sinks. I imagine all sorts of unpleasant outcomes. Like my wife and I doing the washing up in the restaurant’s shouty kitchen while she says “Colm, I need a man who can provide for me, someone who doesn’t put me in situations like this.”
Apparently I have left the actual voucher at home. All I’ve handed them is the voucher holder – just a piece of paper with an amount of money written on it in pencil. I fluster a little but they are understanding. Happens all the time Sir. Just make sure you don’t use the voucher again. As I retake my seat, I’m impressed at their discretion. Perhaps they have a policy of only nabbing a charlatan when he goes to the restroom so as not to upset the other customers.
A few hours later we are still out and about. It’s been a while since the restaurant and we’re peckish. A kebab seems to be the right way to finish the evening off. This is a far less labour-intensive operation. At the door there is no one to greet us. There is a queue of other people. How distasteful. No amuse bouche, no explanation of the menu options, no olive bread. If you ask the guy behind the counter what does he recommend, he laughs.
But there’s nothing wrong with that – it’s jus different.