Eating Out – Then and Now

It’s been a big week on the gastronomic front for me. In the past seven days I’ve managed a night in a boutique Dorset hotel complete with fine dining, supper at arguably the best seafood restaurant in the UK* and brunch at a quirky Cornish cafe with a strong vegan thrust. (I’ve only written that because I like the sound of a vegan thrust.)

That’s a lot of eating out.

And I love eating out. Not simply because it means I don’t have to venture into the part of my house which accommodates the oven and fridge (I understand it’s called a kitchen?) but because it never doesn’t feel special.

My dad came round the other day with a photo of me and my family dining in a restaurant in Corfu in the late 1970s. It was taken by one of those roving photographers who ambush you in public spaces then demand money for their wares.

In the picture I am wearing my best evening dress but I’m not looking at the camera. Instead, my eyes are on a man at another table wearing what looks like a cross between a stetson and a sombrero. (I have always been drawn to the fashion faux pas.) My dad, clearly mid-mouthful, looks as though he might hit the photographer if he doesn’t move off to another table quite soon. Mum is very comfortable; smiling at cameras is actually part of her skill set. My brother has shrunk behind my dad’s bicep.

It is, in every regard, a terrible photo.

But I love it.

Photographers took photos in restaurants back then because eating out was kind of a big deal. It was a treat. Something people rarely did.

And I remember the novelty of eating out. Mostly because it really only happened on holiday. Abroad. (Unless you count a stop in a  Little Chef on the way to the airport.)

The UK High Street was not awash with family friendly restaurants. You might be lucky and get taken for a polystyrene cup of tomato soup at a British Home Stores cafe if the shopping trip you’d been dragged on spilled over into lunchtime, but generally speaking, restaurants were for professional couples in TV shows like ‘Just Good Friends.’

We had a Wimpey on our high street and later a Pizza Express and in all the time I lived in that town, my parents never took us to either. Possibly because Tesco Clubcard reward vouchers hadn’t yet been invented.

People just weren’t in the habit of spending money on eating out.

And who could blame them? Who wanted to sit in badly designed interiors with flock wall paper and pine tables? You could get that at home and, better still, your mum didn’t expect a tip.

A stealthy restaurant culture grew up around the same time as I did. Celebrity chefs hit the TV screens. The BBC Good Food magazine clogged magazine racks in middle class homes across the nation.

And we started going out for dinner rather than just out for a curry.

Like I say, the thrill of going out to eat still gets me every time. My heart  beats faster whenever I’m handed a menu. I never like my husband as much as I do when viewing him through a glass of wine across a table, certain that he’ll be footing the bill.

Having dinner bought for me will never lose its appeal.

My children take for granted the huge range of cuisines on offer. They stare at me in disbelief when I tell them I was ten before I ever put a sweet and sour prawn ball in my mouth. Or that there was a time when, if you mentioned ‘smoothie’ people thought you were talking about Roger Moore. Hell, I tell them, back then garlic bread was cutting edge!

Theirs is a world of (ironic) flock wallpaper and (retro) pine tables.

It’s a world of matcha and quinoa, of sweet potato fries and polenta chips, where nobody need be afraid of vegetables any more.

Oh wow. I think I’ve developed a vegan thrust…


*The Wheelhouse, Falmouth

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