Angies’s entire lunch had been ruined – and she couldn’t wait to tell me about it. Specifically with regard to the fact that children were involved – and she has long been acquainted with my opinion regarding children in restaurants – she was well aware that the ear into which she poured the lunchtime saga would be nothing less than sympathetic, the thyme-scented goats cheese and slow-roasted green tomato tart tatin presumably still faintly there at the back of her palate.
There she had been, blissfully working her way through one of the establishment’s signature specialities, a mid-week treat with a glass of wine, when the experience was shattered by the screams of a child at the next table. Her initial distaste was soon replaced by astonishment as the child carried on unabated, its tantrum utterly ignored by the parents who themselves were midway through their leisurely wine- accompanied meal. Angie conceded there had been some ineffectual shushes at one stage – but essentially the child had taken over to the point where, after rushing the remains of her meal to an undignified ending, Angie found herself standing at the till glowering at the waitress. She paid her bill but not before expressing her strong disapproval that the incident should not have ben dealt with. To which the implacable waitress replied that the restaurant did not like to discourage parents bringing in children; it wasn’t the policy; there was nothing, regrettably, that she could do about it.
Of course Angie’s story outraged me almost as much as it had her. Outrage at the indifferent, selfish parents; outrage at the child who was probably bored or tired and who certainly should have been carried of the place; outrage at the ludicrous restaurant policy. I would have stalked out too, and possibly not chosen that particular venue again either.
Noise is a very large issue when it comes to dining out – yet it surprises me how insensitive many restaurateurs are to its effects. There is one local restaurant to which I have never returned since the night I shouted over a perfectly pleasant meal a conversation with a friend until I felt sapped by exhaustion, the pleasure of eating completely undermined by the noise with which I was competing. Bare floorboards, industrial spaces, the absence of softening, muffling fabric – carpets, curtains – may be chic and of the moment, but certainly to me (and most other people I know over the age of 25) they spell death to the prospect of dining comfortably out.
The upshot of Angie’s experience was that I threw out a call for what was unlikeable as far as dining out was concerned. Interestingly, it wasn’t the noise factor that was mostly mentioned, it was the service. Most people lamented waiters who were either overly attentive or mostly absent; several objected to their familiarity (with one friend even citing an example she thought might be peculiar to Byron Bay, which was of the waiter actually sitting down at the table to take the order – ‘unless they’re very cute and you want them to,’ she qualified).
Plates being cleared before everyone had finished eating. Being ignored when you first arrive. Having ‘a great intimate conversation crashed into by a waiter who wants to know if we’re enjoying the meal,’ offered someone else. Sniffy waiters who feel they are doing you a favour, suggested another. And these were just some of the worms that came slithering and wriggling out of a can I had unwittingly opened – all because of a tantrum-throwing child. Space impels me to reserve for a future column other objections to what is supposed to be all about pleasure. Meanwhile, I gather that the exercise had been cathartic for some! (‘This is very therapeutic,’ confided one friend.)