Voices

Privileged youngsters take dining out for granted – it used to be such a rare treat

Roll with it: everyone is chasing Pret’s lobster bap – but does anyone care about fine food any more?
(Getty)

When I was young and living at home in the 1970s, we very rarely went out to eat. After all, what was the point in restaurants? My mum was a really good cook and having spent time abroad as an army wife she was as capable of rustling up virtually any cuisine.

We lived in the north of England, where occasionally my grandfather would treat his Fylde coast dynasty to lunch. This would mean dressing up properly in our best clothes and sitting nicely while eating a three-course meal, which for a greedy girl like me was utter heaven. I’d go for the prawn cocktail, followed by the gammon with pineapple and a garnish of parsley with half a tomato cut into a zig-zag shape. Pudding would be some kind of gateaux or sherry trifle (never as good as my Aunty Aileen’s) and then we’d all go home, groaning that we were so full we were “never going to eat again”. Because saying that was part of the ritual too.

Apart from those rare treats, we never bought lunch out. On long car journeys, rather than succumb to the evils of the motorway service station, my mother would pack a picnic and we’d sit like everyone else, in a lay-by and eat cheese and pickle sandwiches that tasted of ancient Tupperware. Back then, no one sold little cartons of juice, so we’d drink orange squash from a flask and then maybe my mum would hand round some melting KitKats.

These days everyone eats out all the time, sometimes in London it seems that’s all anyone does, people are eating constantly. The choice is bewildering. You can eat around the globe within 500 yards of a Tube station. Kids in school uniforms are eating boxes of sushi, wielding chopsticks like experts and not pulling a funny face when they overdo the wasabi. Office workers are slurping at ramen bowls and chowing down on bao buns. This week everyone is chasing Pret’s new lobster roll (well, I am).

But while I’m all for choice when it comes to fast-food and feel a bit bonkers in places where I can’t get raw fish for love nor money, I do still like the ceremony of occasionally pushing the boat out and going somewhere quite posh – even if its just for one course and a glass of wine.

These days everyone eats out all the time, sometimes in London it seems that’s all anyone does, people are eating constantly

By posh, I mean somewhere that is the opposite of fast food, a proper restaurant with white linen and polished glass wear, with heavy cutlery that makes a proper clatter when you drop it on a marble floor, where the waiters know what they’re talking about and the lavatories (not toilets) have up-market soap dispensers and plenty of loo paper. Listen you can be as posh as you like but if you’re not replenishing your loo roll holders, it’s a dump – literally.

So anyway, because old northern Seventies habits die hard, the old man and I very rarely eat in places where we’re not reaching for something from a chiller cabinet. However, last week, having been invited as guest of the Marie Curie foundation, we’d been to the Royal Academy summer show and were wandering past a well-known joint in Piccadilly when we thought we’d pop in and see if a table for two was available.

It was and we were delighted. Everything glinted: the napkins felt like that billion thread count Egyptian cotton that celebrities sleep under. A couple of tables away, two young men worked their way through a tower of oysters, it conjured up New York in the good old days, there was a touch of Gatsby about the place and the service was impeccable.

Then two girls were shown to the table next to us, both in their twenties, groomed to the elegant eyebrows, wearing incredibly expensive gym wear and clutching designer bags. They weren’t rude or noisy, they just weren’t particularly thrilled to be there (it was as if they’d popped into Maccy D’s for a burger). Neither had much to say to each other, one of them being a great deal more interested in her phone than her flesh friend. In fact, I think she only put it down to complain about her salad dressing.

I don’t know why this scenario depressed me so much but it did, they oozed such a sense of bored privilege that they sucked all sense of occasion out of the atmosphere around them. Then one of them lifted a plastic bottle of water from her bag and plonked it down on the tablecloth! This was despite iced jugs of tap water being on offer, seriously it was all I could do not to lift one of those iced water jugs and throw the contents into her spoilt little face.

Well that’s got that off my chest, phew, I feel better now. My meal was delicious, by the way.