When I was a teenager in the early Eighties, womanhood first beckoned not when a member of the opposite sex took you for a quick snog behind the bike sheds, but when he asked you to join him for a meal in a restaurant instead.
A lucky few of us during our final year at school got such an invite. It was always to the same place – the dining room of a local hotel. It immediately became an event so huge that every girl in your school class soon knew all about it.
If memory serves, you got a week’s notice, which, when my turn came, subjected me to the longest seven days I’d ever known. I remember being bombarded in the loos with questions from girls who had previously never bothered with me. What will you wear? Do you want to borrow my lipstick? What will you eat? How will you eat with him sat opposite you?
Veterans passed on handy tips, such as avoiding starving yourself in the run-up in order to have room for pudding and a starter – a schoolgirl error that would see your stomach shrink, leaving you struggling to eat very much at all. By the time I was finally handed a menu, I felt so sick with anticipation that suddenly the last thing I wanted in front of me was a plate of food anyway.
So far, so melodramatic, I know, but then, this was a time when dining out was considered a treat so rare you savoured the experience at least as much as the food. Compare that with today, when going to a restaurant has become so run of the mill it doesn’t seem to warrant much excitement at all.
Even a Sunday pub lunch felt decadently eventful, because it was so out of the norm
In fact, new research from Manchester University reveals that three quarters of us now consider a meal out to be a non-event – the best thing about the experience being not having to wash up afterwards. What a shame. But perhaps it is only those of us of a certain age who will fully appreciate this as another sad example of ubiquity turning something that once felt extraordinary into the bland and everyday.
When I was a girl, dining out was something we did on the most special occasions – mostly birthdays with a nought on the end. Even a Sunday pub lunch felt decadently eventful, because it was so out of the norm.
We might now be living in straitened times, but eateries still seem to be doing a roaring trade. My childhood was lived through days of true frugality; spending money on a meal that you could make yourself for a fraction of the cost was considered a great extravagance.
And so, when you did splash out, tables were booked well in advance and your outfit for the evening agonised over. The menu was always carefully considered before you made your choice – after all, if you got it wrong you’d feel obliged to eat up anyway, considering your bill at the end of it all would be enough to fill several shopping baskets.
Even now, my heart beats a little faster as I recall the thrill of my first restaurant date. I must have gone out for a meal a thousand times since, yet I still vividly recall every detail: from the surprising weight of the cutlery in my hands to my nagging fear that someone might swipe my coat from wherever the maître d’ had secreted it – before I had finished my black forest gateaux.
Even now, my heart beats a little faster as I recall the thrill of my first restaurant date
Funnily enough, I went on to have my wedding reception at the same hotel eight years later, although I did marry a different fella. He and I now fall more into the “eat out at the drop of a hat” category, enjoying lunch out with one or other of our three daughters most weeks. We try to have dinner alone together once a month and get out as a family about the same.
That’s not to say I dismiss any of those meals as run of the mill – they still feel special to me. Three years ago, we went a good twelve months without eating out at all. Our youngest girl was very poorly, and it took the best part of a year to get a diagnosis and see an improvement in her health. I barely worked and uncertainty about the future meant we watched every penny. Restaurants were entirely off the menu.
When we finally did get round to it again, after spending years taking restaurants very much for granted, boy, what a great experience we got to share. I remember repeatedly saying between mouthfuls “Isn’t this lovely”, as someone placed food in front of me I hadn’t cooked, and I knew the dirty pots we’d leave behind weren’t my problem.
But the sense of occasion ran deeper than that. It was the buzz that came from being surrounded by strangers who were sharing our experience, the hum of their conversations providing a backdrop to our own. When going out for a meal is nothing special, your senses are dulled – but now even the food tasted better for the newfound novelty of the experience.
Not that we’d gone anywhere fancy. It was just a spur of the moment Nando’s, where we ate grilled chicken that we had to pay for up front. It was a great experience, none the less. Now that life has settled down again, I’ve been lucky enough to go on to eat in several fantastic restaurants. And yet, no meal has ever felt quite as satisfying since.