In a Cafe, Sitting Down with John and Bernard

Yes, I like my space too. I am removed from my comfort zone if I’m seated, elbow to elbow, with strangers for a dining experience in the cafes and restaurants of my town, of any town. When I am not out and about with my lovely lady or pals, I play it safe, very safe. In company I tend to be a tad more adventurous, but on my tod it’s usually the franchise watering holes, such as Banjos or Hudsons, that see me. In these I know I’ll be able to peruse a book or newspaper in privacy, without the thumpa-thumpa music that afflicts some coffee shops – take note a certain establishment in NoHo. When I am alone I keep to myself and expect others to do the same. And I shudder at the thought of those hipster establishments with their communal tables and as uncomfortable as possible seating as a badge of honour. Hipster-lite is okay. I have no objection to bearded baristas with top-knots. I like a quiet cafe – but, it’s a different matter with restaurants. There a degree of noise is expected, but you shouldn’t have to shout to be heard should you wish to engage in conversation with your companions.

When you are restauranteering you have less control over the situation and I try to be flexible, not obviously displaying it if I am irked by the choice of the venue or the quality of the nosh. But, as with Bernard, I do my best to avoid close table dining. Being a naturally reticent person I find such cheek to jowelness with my fellow humans somewhat confronting. If they are well soused and in expansive moods it can become a nightmare. And if there’s music being constantly increased in volume to compete, as was the case in a recent experience in my home city, then it becomes purgatory.

But I have had a couple of close dining experiences I’d like to relate to you, dear reader, when I actually let my hair down in a claustrophobic situation. One occurred in Adelaide, the other in Yarra City

My lovely lady and I had had a good run of dining out experiences in the City of Churches on the Torrens. We got it into our heads that we must not leave this Earth without having a Jamie Oliver experience. Adelaide had one available – his Italian restaurant on King William Street. It’s described in the blurb we read as a ‘…relaxed venue with rustic menu and antipasto bar.’ but, since our attendance, it has had a fairly up and down history. When my son was in the city, not so long ago, he reported it was on the nose. I think I read recently that the great man has now taken over direct control of it as matters at the eatery bearing his name had become so dire.

Anyway, when we arrived – no bookings taken – it was anything but relaxed. It was jam packed. But, after a considerable wait, we were finally ushered to a small table against a wall. Another couple arrived shortly after us and were practically seated on top of we two against the wall as well. We were so in proximity it seemed not to be an auspicious start as we realised we couldn’t possibly get through the evening without some sort of communication with these folk. It turned out the pair, roughly the same vintage as ourselves, were marvellous company, my tongue was soon loosened and we were away. I remember, as you do in Adelaide, that we soon got on to the topic of footy and they were both passionate on the topic – the fellow being mad for the Crows, she a rusted on Port supporter. How did their union possibly survive? I recall the tucker was adequate there without being anything extraordinary, but the waiter allocated must be one of the most idiosyncratic I have had the pleasure of being served by. He went out of his way to describe the provenance of every morsel on every plate so by the time he’d finish any warmth our selections retained from the lengthy trip from the kitchen soon departed, but it didn’t matter. His quirkiness just added to the loveliness of the evening, no doubt being assisted by liberal lubrication. I do remember the toilets downstairs were a real eye-opener as well. And had it not been for the seating arrangements, I’m sure I would not have retained such fond memories our night.

On the other occasion, I was in Melbourne with my lovely and sorely missed mate, Neville H. He was always the best of company out and about and very voluble, especially if fortified by a few reds. Come time to dine I guided him up to Hardware Lane and told him it was his choice from the array of eateries that stretched down two blocks. We promenaded along, he perused the menu boards, listening intently to the various spruikers cajoling for custom. Soon we were almost at the end. Nev had peered into several possibilities, but had come away shaking his head. I naturally assumed he wasn’t satisfied by what he’d seen on the plates being consumed, either in terms of quality, quantity or both. I was getting a tad restive by the time he stopped at practically the last watering hole. I watched as he examined the menu board in the company of a particularly comely young lady who was talking into his ear. He nodded quite enthusiastically before peering through the doorway. He then turned to me smiling and beckoned me in. As we were being seated I asked what was it about the food that had finally given this establishment the green light. He laughed and told me it was nothing about the tucker – it was the attractiveness of the female waiting staff he was assessing. And as it turned out, they were extremely gorgeous. But they weren’t the only examples of feminine gorgeousness we were to experience on that eve.

Now I cannot recall the name of the brasserie. I know it was something quite funky as it was fitted out in an attempt to attract the younger set. It seemed to be doing that quite successfully. It had a good vibe about it, but when I tried to seek it out on a later excursion across Bass Strait, there was no evidence of it along the dining strip. The reason for that could be implicit in what happened to us next on that joyous night.

Once we were in place the waitress explained to us that, as the venue had only just opened, it was still getting its systems up to scratch and we were asked to be patient. We were provided with a generous complementary drink in recompense. What ensued was the most shambolic experience I’ve ever had, but that didn’t matter. We were all in the same boat, therein being the beauty of the evening. I was hard up against a young couple at the next minuscule table for two. Sort of semi-circled around the four of us was a bevy of young damsels, obviously well tanked and out to make a night of it. Now it was rare for any food order to come to any of us during the course of proceedings that resembled what, in fact, was ordered, so the whole group of us sort of swapped plates around till we had, in front of us, something we were happy with. When these continual errors were pointed out to the servers we were placated by yet another bottle of sparkly stuff by the management. And even though we were old enough to be the fathers of all those vivacious young things seated around us, Nev and I were the best of friends with them by the time we made our departure. We both possessed bloated tummies due to the offerings, liquid and solid, we had consumed. Several of the girls that eve also had ample cleavage on display which added to the event for us two old farts. It is one of my happiest memories of times spent with my best pal – and all because, Bernard, it was an ultra-close dining experience. It brings on a smile to this day

So you see, Bernard and John, yes, close dining can be a pain and is something for me to avoid – but, on occasions, it can also be the exact opposite. Now, Johnny L, would I have been offended by a guy wearing a ‘F***K Fashion’ t-shirt? I doubt it, but you make a point. And as for kids in restaurants/cafes with digital devices, Bernard S, well, think it through, man. What would they be like without those devices? As for listening in to the conversations at other tables, I must admit I’ve been guilty of that. In fact, I’ve sometimes found the basis for a scribbling emerge from what I’ve overheard.

I guess, though, when it’s all said and done, Mr Lethlean gives the best advice – if an eatery isn’t up to scratch on any item on one’s check list then, as Neville H did all those years ago on Hardware Street, move on.

Bernard Salt’s article = https://www.theaustralian.com.au/life/weekend-australian-magazine/restaurant-tables-too-close-together-try-doing-this/news-story/abde24c189fef11bf3291247386a378d

John Leathlean’s article =

Cafe etiquette ain’t what it was – John Lethlean – December 9, 2017
The guy sits down opposite at the cafe where I’m quietly reading a (provided) newspaper, enjoying the music, sipping coffee. He has with him two kids, aged about three and four. One seems self-sufficient; the other is immediately set up with a smartphone (that will soon be in a puddle of chocolate milk) to watch a video. Without headphones.
I’ll leave the whole “children with video screens” subject to one side; my gentle morning – our gentle morning, because I’m not alone at this communal table – just became a multimedia cacophony: Father John Misty vs ABC Me. “Is that OK?” the dad asks us. I consider acquiescence, but decide a point needs to be made. “Not really,” I say. “It’s pretty much spoiling the atmosphere, don’t you think?”
At least he asks; it’s more than most. And turns down the volume. Cafe etiquette just ain’t what it was.
This is how I see it: about $4.50 buys a seat at the table for half an hour; it includes music I like, or can at least tolerate; internet connection; shelter; climate control; water; newspapers; and the difficult-to-value amenity of being around a group of fellow citizens – stimulus to some, distraction to others. Oh, and an excellent long macchiato. The cafe provides all this for a relatively modest sum.
And I reckon that we, in turn, have obligations under an unwritten code of cafe etiquette: to the staff; to our fellow users. Play nice.
I don’t want to sound like a grumpy retiree, but I think the obligation to actively engage in a social space is important. Playing video – by which I mean streamed entertainment, personal footage, FaceTime conversation, social media posts – on devices with the volume up is just the most front-of-mind breach of said code, and it’s certainly not confined to an age group or demographic. It’s amazing, I reckon, that anyone could think turning the volume up on their device to see the latest viral hit or grandkid splashing in the bath is kosher in a public space. But you find it everywhere these days. Ditto the conference call or speakerphone chat.
As users, we have an obligation to respect the cafe as a social space; making no noise is almost as bad as making too much. So don’t sit there with headphones in, tapping at a laptop – it’s not the office, and treating it as such for hours on end for the price of a single coffee only engenders ill-will. Greet the people next to you at that communal table with a smile and a hello. What goes around…
And dress acceptably. Seriously. I had to speak to management at a cafe once because a customer next to me was wearing a cap and a shirt with unbelievable profanities emblazoned on them. It was a family place. He was asked to leave; I don’t think he’d considered that the parents of children present might not want them asking, “What does ‘F**k Fashion’ mean, mummy?”
It all comes down to mutual respect, doesn’t it? And naturally, it cuts both ways. If your cafe isn’t holding up its end of the bargain, even if the coffee’s excellent, cut it loose. Move on.
Read something good, smile at the lady next to you and don’t pull the papers to pieces. Take your phone calls outside. And please, please share video with that little “button” in the screen’s corner. #cafeetiquette starts now.

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