My earliest memories of eating out en famille go back to holidays in Europe. Sitting down to eat had to be just so. There were usually five of us: Granny, Grandpa, my mother, my aunt and me. The child I was at the time thought those meals endless. It wasn’t so much the number of courses or the leisurely service, but the time it took to settle at table.
“Let’s sit by the open window” one of the grown-ups would say. “It’s such a lovely view.”
As soon as we were installed, Granny admitted she wasn’t so sure. “I can feel a draught.”
So we’d let the maitre d’ show us to a table at the back. Once we’d sat down, Auntie might say “It’s a little warm here, isn’t it?”
“And maybe a bit too close to the toilets” Mum would add, wrinkling her nose.
We’d smile apologetically and they’d find us somewhere else, not too near the front or the back. Unlike Goldilocks, however, it took us more than three goes. Once installed, Grandpa would find something else wrong. Wasn’t this table a bit small for five? Or else it was too noisy here, what with his hearing aid and everything.
Up we’d get again. While we pondered our next move, the staff would think fondly of retirement.
The scenario repeated itself in every restaurant. I’m not sure why it was this way, as we were a decisive bunch the rest of the time. And once we’d fixed on a table, we’d stick with it, come hell or high water. Literally.
At a lakeside restaurant when I was about 10, my family insisted on having an extra chair brought to the table we’d picked at the water’s edge. Of course, the waiter didn’t place it quite where my mother had in mind, so she scraped it back and forth over the paving.
“That’s enough, Jackie” hissed Granny after several minutes of this.
This only made my mum more determined to position her chair exactly how she wanted. “There!” she finally said triumphantly as she sat herself down, tipping backwards into the lake.
The mishap caused minor modifications in our table behaviour for a little while, but old habits die hard. Fast forward a few decades, and Mum, Aunty and I were again abroad, this time with my three sons and two cousins, already hungry. Mum thought we should look at a posh restaurant she remembered from days gone by. It seemed a tad stuffy for a family meal, but what clinched it was Mum’s observation: “Not enough tables.”
In theory, people only need one table at a time, but by now you’ve got the idea. So we wandered down the road, passing several more restaurants on the way. There was something wrong with each one: only fish on the menu, too dark, or else so sun-drenched we’d all get cancer. By now we were crabby from hunger, which is how we ended up at a fast-food place, eating chicken and chips with our fingers off a greasy table located about 10 inches away from the bins.
Left to my own devices, I would never behave like this. Only last week I went to a café by the river with one of my sons. We sat down right away. Well, almost, because the table he’d first picked was by the water, where the air was thick with midges.
We studied the menu. It was a huge piece of card but there wasn’t actually much on it except for over-priced hamburgers and Caesar salad. We looked at each other over the top.
“Sod it” I said, pushing back my chair. “Shall we go somewhere else?”