Time Out’s Executive Editor Michael Hodges has been testing the limits of awkwardness so you don’t have to. This week’s thing not to do in London – No 766: Order the English tapas.
A wooden platter arrives. Carefully balanced together on the platter are two boiled eggs which have had their shells removed. The eggs are faced by a large scrubbed carrot that has a slight upward bend towards its end.
The effect, it has as to be said, is one of two boobs and a knob. Technically this is a second date, and although I have had no part in the arrangement of the eggs and the carrot, I can’t help but flush. I sense that the woman on the other side of the table feels that I am in some way responsible. That I am sending her signals of sexual intent via the medium of eggs and carrots.
The waiter coughs into his hand and says, ‘Your free appetiser, sir.’
The silence that follows is intense. I break it with a question. ‘Which part of Spain,’ I ask him, ‘does this dish come from?’
‘Which part of Spain does it come from?’ the waiter repeats, confusion momentarily playing across his face.
‘Yes, Spain. This is a tapas bar?’
‘Ah, no, sir. Tapas-style!’ He points at the menu where the words ‘tapas-style dining’ are emblazoned above an etching of a small bird apparently being threatened by several angry sardines. ‘We are influenced by Iberian small-plates culture. But we make a point of only sourcing local ingredients wherever we can. And all our dishes are our own invention.’
It’s a standard if understandable error to have your second date at a restaurant. You have passed the fiery test of the first date and despite that incident with the beer bottle and the thing that went wrong with your blouse/trousers/hair/ moustache, the other person is still potentially interested in a romantic involvement. Eating seems the natural next step on the tortuous path to the bedroom: if they can bear to see you deal with a mouthful of peas then perhaps sex is not such an outlandish possibility.
But what does he or she like to eat? Does this woman despise peppers? Is this a man who would rather be flagellated than face a cornichon? You don’t know, so you pick tapas purely because there are so many plates knocking around the restaurant that at least one of them should have something on it that the other person likes. And absolutely everyone loves patatas bravas. But now you discover that this isn’t a tapas restaurant after all.
‘Nothing comes from Spain?’
‘You have no patatas bravas?’
‘This is an entirely Spanish-product-free tapas bar?’
It’s tough to find a new angle in London’s ever-changing restaurant scene, but it is possible to try too hard and I fear the entirely Spanish-product-free tapas bar will join other innovative concepts like the Korean pie-and-mash shop, the Hawaiian chip shop and the ‘beerless’ pub on the roll of London’s catering failures.
I am also afraid that the evening is spinning out of control and that our second date will also be our last. I consider possible courses of action. As ever, running away is the first and most attractive option. But you can’t spend your life fleeing from situations as soon as things turn awkward. Besides, how bad can it get?
The waiter returns with a bowl. ‘Sorry,’ he says. ‘I forgot the aioli dressing.’ He scoops up a wobbling blob of garlic mayonnaise and flourishes it at our ‘appetiser’. The dollop of white goop lands, as I suppose it must, just at the tip of the carrot, where it forms itself into a line of suggestive blobs which travel across the platter before splattering over the eggs.
‘So…’ I say to the woman. ‘What’s your favourite movie?’
Read more of Michael Hodges’s culinary, cultural and coupling conundrums at timeout.com/hodges