When death did not knock, I decided to take friends who helped me through the last few cancer years out to dinner. I found out quickly that reserving tables in London was like playing roulette in Las Vegas, I never knew if the dialed number was a winner, or if I would leave the restaurant, head drooping, pockets turned inside out, after an expensive dismal experience.
On my first trip out to the real world I took my oncologist to my neighborhood Michelin-starred restaurant, L’Autre Pied.
Dr Margaret Spittle is the true hero of my cancer remission, having managed to preserve my life through fifteen years of cancer bouts. It seemed appropriate to have a first rate dinner. We decided on the seven course tasting menu. The first courses were delightful, but after forty five minutes the tables on either side of us filled up, and the service slowed to a snail’s pace. We had four more courses to go.
A late middle age couple and their guest sat on my left side. The table was piled high with catalogues from the art auctions which were being held in London during that week. The men talked throughout and ordered one course while the woman ate three courses in silence, ignored.
On the other side sat a couple of tourists, and like gamblers hedging their bets they ordered everything to be shared between them. When the first course arrived, a slice of tomato with a few other ingredients in a short stack, they hit the roof. Our waiter was completely out of his depth. How do you explain the minimal cooking philosophy to heathens, in your second language, with hungry customers waiting for their fifth course.
By the third hour, our waiter completely folded, service stopped, and we had run out of conversation. Dessert – an elaborate ending was promised – became a peach with whipped cream, thrown at us. I limped out, with the ever unflappable Dr Spittle raving about the food.
My second bet was on Scotts, where I was told they needed the table back in two hours. After spending three hours at Pied I thought two sounded about right.
The first hour at Scotts was impeccable. We arrived at 6.30 when the restaurant was quiet. The cocktails were lovely and the waiter offered a pillow to my pregnant friend. (No toilet paper in the ladies room balanced that out.) The waiter was helpful and we ordered the shellfish platter for one, which more that adequately served three. It took a long time coming and when the waiter whisked the platter away and brought it back with new ice, no one seemed to be in a hurry. We had our mains and that, too, was delicious.
The betting was going my way until the waiter came, cleared our table and abruptly offered coffee. I thought it strange but assumed the dessert menu would follow in some strange custom of the establishment.
Suddenly a man in a flamboyant suit appeared and in a preposterously camp manner asked for the host, and when I confessed drilled me on whether I enjoyed the meal and if the service had been good. I said it was very good, which at this point I meant.
Then he dropped the bomb. The table was needed immediately: the people it was reserved for had arrived. I asked if this is why we hadn’t been offered dessert and he was not apologetic at all. The bill came to over 200 pounds for three of us and a cover charge to boot. At least at home your table doesn’t get repossessed until the bank manager sees your bills.
Now gambling at the tables had become an addiction and for my third try I volunteered to organize dinner at the Royal Opera House. My friend had gotten some fabulous free tickets so I thought dinner should be up to me. The hurdle of booking and pre ordering a menu on line proved insurmountable, but the old telephone worked amazingly well. But it is always difficult to book for another person, no matter how well you think you know them.
The first course went well: smoked salmon and a glass of rose – perfect.
The main course sounded good on paper: cold filet of beef and I had ordered sides of salad and potatoes, harmless enough. As much as I enjoyed Manon (the opera) I was feeling sick (nothing unusual there) and when I came back from the ladies, my friend had rejected the beef out of hand and instructed the waiter to wrap it for his cats. OK it wasn’t the sliced cold roast beef I had expected and a whole filet eaten cold is not perfect, but it wasn’t that bad.
After the second act, sung beautifully, the dessert arrived and since my guest had announced that he didn’t like strawberries I dug into the strawberry sundae and left him the amazing chocolate concoction. He returned from the men’s to have a look at my sundae and declared it his. So I lost the bet and my dessert as well!
It is great to be alive and to be able to complain about first class restaurants. I’m privileged to be able to gamble at their tables. Let’s face it the alternative (death) seems to be no fun at all.