In 1970s Britain food was fuel. You ate at home, from the supplies you’d bought in for the week – except for Fridays. Friday was a take-away treat, give mum a night off from the cooking so she only had the washing up to do. Everyone looked forward to that night. What did we eat? Fish & chips, of course. Every town had a ‘chippie’ and on Friday night the queues stretched round the block. There wasn’t much of a choice otherwise.
But, supposing you did want to eat out? The very suggestion would guarantee the response:
‘Who’s birthday is it?’
And even then it had to be a special birthday; like an 18th, 21st or one ending in a zero. You see, no one really ate out. I mean, why would you when you’ve got all that food at home? Or the chippie round the corner?
But let’s say you really were going to eat out. Where would you go? Well, in the ’70s suburbia where I lived, there were three choices:
1. The Wimpy. The advantage over the chippie was that you could sit in and eat. The restaurants had a vague Mediterranean style with white-painted rough-plastered walls, decorated with garish abstract artworks. A rare flirtation with the cosmopolitan. The menu was burgers and chips but plated up posh with peas and a frankfurter sausage known as a ‘bender’ because it was artistically curled around the hamburger patty. The Wimpy was for families who had money to burn, shoppers on a Saturday and teenage couples in love on a weekday. As a teenage boy you really had to love the girl to afford to take her to the Wimpy, and she would know this. But if you really, really loved her – she was the one and you were going to get engaged – you would go to:
2. The Chinese. The Chinese restaurant was about as exotic as it got. It was always full of couples getting engaged. If you ate in the Chinese you were permanently amazed by the weird vegetables they used. How anyone could make bamboo palatable was an ongoing mystery. Kevin Phillips’ dad cut up and boiled a couple of canes from the broad bean patch in the allotment – it didn’t have the same taste. Or texture. Even after stir-frying. The Chinese were miracle workers.
The last restaurant in this list was a place you aspired to go to, a place you’d never thought you’d get to step foot in, let alone eat. A restaurant so exclusive that even if you did actually find yourself sitting at one of their tables you would have no idea what you were eating because the menu was written entirely in French.
3. The French restaurant. With its wood-beamed seductive low-light interior and the woven straw-covered Ruffino Chianti bottles that hung on the walls; this was top of the league. Footballers (pronounced ‘footblurs’) went there to eat with their ‘modawl’ wives; rubbing shoulders with the local businessmen and the well-to-do of Ilford. It was the sort of nite spot you read about in the Sunday papers. Classy. Outside it had a menu encased in glass, presumably to stop the commoners from coming inside to ask questions. The main one being ‘How much?’ as the menu didn’t have any prices on it, the restaurant operated on the principal that if you had to ask you couldn’t afford it. Rumour had it that a three-course meal with wine would set you back just over twenty pounds ($32 / €24), that was a week’s wages.
I took a girlfriend in there once, when I was eighteen. Yes, it was an ultra-special night – I had a diamond ring in my pocket. No expense spared. But the waiter stopped us with a raised hand before we’d even shut the door.
‘This is a restaurant,’ he said.
We went to the Chinese instead.
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