Some boys are taught by their fathers how to skim stones or bowl cricket balls. Mine taught me a far more important life skill: how to politely summon the bill in a restaurant from a distance. A hand raised. An eye caught across the dining room. The flourish of an invisible pen, writing a cheque in the air. Job done.
Or at least it was once an important skill. Recently, I raised my hand and scribbled in the air at the delightful twentysomething who had been serving us. And I realised what a ludicrous gesture this now was. Sure, they understood, but God knows how. It’s likely they’ve never written a cheque. We have not yet come up with an internationally recognised gesture for putting your pin number into a card reader, or holding your phone against it. But the cheque-scribbling thing is definitely out of date. This makes me sad. I loved doing the whole invisible cheque-writing thing. It felt suave.
The restaurant business loves retro. When the ineffably cool Maison François opened in St James’s in London in 2020, diners swooned over its dessert trolley as if the 1970s was a neglected decade deserving of love. When the great Otto’s opened in 2011, it was celebrated for having a duck press and using it like it was 1922.
Still, there are some things in the restaurant world that can never be rescued from obsolescence. We do not mourn all of them. I am old enough to recall when the starters would include a glass of orange juice or, if you were feeling really adventurous, a fruit cocktail, served in a stainless-steel coupe, topped with a maraschino cherry, from which the clingfilm had lovingly been ripped off only moments before. Farewell.
There are others, however, which, while occasionally still available, risk becoming as rare as a sober night in Downing Street. For example, chicken in a basket. I used to love chicken in a basket when I was a kid. It was your dinner. Served in a basket. How cool was that? I haven’t seen it on a menu in years. It used to come on a doily. I worry about the doily industry.
Quietly, I regret the passing of cutlet frills, those tiny paper chef hats that used to top the trimmed bones of lamb cutlets. You can find them in butchers, but they no longer make it to the table after the lamb is cooked. Fish knives are pointless, but I did love seeing them. Ditto melba toast and ridged curls of butter.
Of course, these things do sometimes continue, for example at Oslo Court in London’s St John’s Wood, where it is forever 1974 and they serve a killer duck à l’orange. But that’s the point: they have retreated.
I fear, for example, for the noble art of the napkin fold: the water lily, the bishop’s mitre or, best of all, the dying swan. Now it appears to live on mostly in the Indian restaurant sector. Eventually, even they’ll get bored of all that folding. Indian restaurants also tend to be where you find the last foil-wrapped mint chocolate at the end of the meal.
Obviously, I love an artisan liquid-centred salted caramel truffle as much as the next urban sophisticate. But I did love that moment at the end of dinner when you burped spices and attempted to smooth out the foil. That’s the thing with getting older. It’s not just people that predecease you. It’s traditions too, lovely ones.
I know writing invisible cheques in the air must go the way of all things. But I don’t have to be happy about it.