After long Covid lockdown, restaurants' return takes me back to my first grown-up dining out experiences – Susan Morrison
We went out for dinner. In a restaurant, at a table, with napkins and shining cutlery. Drinks were brought in glittering glasses. We’ve got all these things at home, but somehow these were all more glamorous.
We sat like shipwreck survivors rescued from a desert isle and returned to civilisation. We stared at the menus dumbstruck. Such choice! We couldn’t make our minds up. Actually, that’s not true. My husband immediately announced he’d have fish and chips, which is his go-to in any non-curry-based restaurant.
It’s been so long. It all felt new and wonderful.
My first grown-up experience of going out for dinner was as a student in Stirling, with my pal Fiona. We went to a great Indian restaurant. My chicken korma and rice came in separate little metal bowls. I panicked, since all our curries at home were served exactly as curry was presented on the front of the Vesta boxes. Rice in a circle, curry in the middle. Fortunately Fiona was sophisticated and knew what to do.
Ah, Vesta. For many it was the first taste of exotic meals from far-flung places like China. It was dehydrated. Lasted for years. Someone once told me the government stockpiled it, so that in the event of nuclear war, we’d be able to sit in the smouldering ruins and still enjoy a chow mein, complete with those weird yellow ‘crackers’, which presumably you could fry in the inferno that had been your home. Every cloud, silver lining.
You had to rehydrate Vesta curries, but the peas never quite reconstituted and lurked like little green granite rocks, just waiting to crack your molars. Still no idea why peas were in a beef curry.
Italian restaurants didn’t baffle you back then with little metal bowls. Your dinner was on the plate, in an approved manner. What you did have was the waiter. Do remember I was much younger then and still had cleavage, which was there, apparently, for waiters to try to peer down whenever they placed those plates, and then again when they came back with the pepper mill. This was usually massive and flourished suggestively with a side order of flirty comments dripping with Italian-accented innuendo. Where have they gone, those titanic grinders? I’m referring to the pepper pots, not the waiters.
You could play it safe and go Stakis, where tomato juice was regarded as a starter. Or you have chosen the slice of melon, which, in the grip of crazed creativity, had been fashioned into a boat by adding a sail made of a grapefruit circle and a maraschino cherry.
Later I saw melon with parma ham, but my father regarded the combination of fruit and meat as an affront to his world view and wouldn’t sanction it at the table. He could just about handle prawn cocktails, but he never got that one prawn clinging onto the side of the glass, like Steve Macqueen snagged on the wire at the end of Great Escape.
It was wonderful to be back in a restaurant again and have lovely food and drink brought to our table.
Escaping prawns, melon boats or massive pepper mills may have vanished, but the best bit of the dining out experience remains.
Someone else does those dishes at the end of the night.