Come dine with me
London is supposed to be a European centre of culinary excellence, with restaurants featuring such world-renowned chefs as Gordon Ramsay, Jamie Oliver, Jean-Christophe Novelli and many, many more. What the guidebooks don't tell you, though, is that if you can't afford the 1000 or so fine dining establishments that get full marks in the Zagat guide or are slathered over by Time Out, you're stuck with the rest of what London has to offer and, as I discovered this weekend, it's a load of old shit.
The bank holiday weekend marked the first time ever that I have had a clear run of absolutely rubbish meals out, with not one redeeming feature among them. I can only afford The Ivy or Oxo Tower on special occasions (i.e. birthdays and, um, other people's birthdays) so am forced to eat like Joe Public the rest of the time if I don't fancy lifting a pan in my own kitchen. I'm not really a food snob, but I do really hate being ripped off or being served what is clearly very shit food which, usually, is made even worse because it's being brought to you by someone who hates you and wants you dead. Let me take you through an average London dining experience:
In your dreams, you sweep into the restaurant, which is lit just right and are met by a beaming Maître D' who knows your name and makes sure that you always get the table you like. In reality, you're met by a stone-faced harridan with lumpy tights or a yellow-toothed 13-year-old in a faded, shrunken T-shirt. You're shown to your table for two which consists of side-by-side seating at a bench that stares at a bright orange wall, stained by long-since swatted flies and bluebottles. You ask to move; you are told that the restaurant is full.
In your fantasy, your drinks order is taken within a minute or two of you being seated; the waiter smiles politely as you hem and haw over which wine to select. Once drinks have been ordered, your waiter leaves you to peruse a simple yet delicious-looking menu and keeps checking every now and again to see if he can help you with your choices. Eventually, you order and your waiter congratulates you on your selection and recommends something else you might like. In the real world, the 13-year-old ignores you for half an hour while he shows people to tables a hundred times better than yours. You manage to read the uninspiring menu, which has badly-photographed 1970s pictures to illustrate some of the dishes, a staggering 8,000 times. When he does come to take your order, he's chewing gum and rolling his eyes. He offers no help when you ask questions, for he has never looked at the menu before. You make a special request and the waiter does not write this down nor does he seem to be listening to you. In fact- no!- is that an iPod he's humming along to while he takes your order? Yes it is!
In your fantasy, the food is lovingly and freshly prepared, making it worth the wait. When it arrives, it's tastefully presented, warm and scrumptious. You never want the meal to end. In the harsh reality, your food will: a) arrive in record time, scalding hot and fresh from a microwave on an Argos plate with a garnish that's clearly seen more than one meal in its lifetime; b) arrive after a 45 minute wait, freezing and on stained crockery, having sat unnoticed in the kitchen; c) never arrive because your waiter popped out to a nightclub after taking your order and forgot to come back. If you do receive it, eating it will be a chore, but you begrudge wasting food because you're from 'the North' (may only apply to me and other people from the North).
The plate clearing
In fantasyville, your still beaming waiters clear your plates and ask attentively if you'd like anything else or just the bill. If you've left any food on your plate, a concerned waiter asks if there was anything wrong with your meal. Back to reality and your almost-full plate is wordlessly collected and the bill comes crashing out of nowehere to your table wrapped in a brick, narrowly missing your head. A service charge of 15% has been added. You will probably not question this.
To be honest, if you can't splash out, you're better off with a kebab most of the time.