In defence of dinner parties

My wife prefers restaurants. She’s wrong

Food

15 Aug 2016

In or out? Almost two months on and I’m afraid the great debate shows no sign of abating, certainly not in our divided household. And while we’ve had several referendums over the matter, the result is always a stalemate.

The only upside is that this argument has nothing to do with Brussels. It’s far more rudimentary.

The battle in Palmer Towers is whether we eat in or out when wanting to see friends. My wife Joanna — who, as it happens, was for In over the country’s EU membership — is a firm outer, while I, who voted Out on 23 June, am a determined inner.

As with the EU conundrum, there are good points to be made on both sides. Joanna thinks that conversation is more focused when seated at a restaurant table, ideally one that is round rather than rectangular. She particularly insists on eating out whenever our children agree to meet up with us, but the problem is that we have four twenty-something offspring between us — and if they all bring boyfriends, girlfriends or, in one case, a wife, I can expect to pick up the bill for ten hungry people.

Joanna also likes the idea of there being a finite period for any get-together, especially when it involves people whom we need to see rather than ones we expressly wish to see. While ‘Can I get the bill, please?’ is for me a phrase full of foreboding, for her it spells liberation. It means she’ll be home and tucked up in bed within the hour.

I am an ‘inner’ primarily because it means we can drink wines of far better calibre than anything I can afford in a posh restaurant. At our local Italian, even the cheapest white — an indifferent pinot grigio with a silly label — is £21.50. For that sort of money I could offer guests a white burgundy from the Wine Society with a guarantee that their hangovers will be more or less manageable in the morning.

At home, I can mix cocktails with abandon. I can produce a pudding wine if the mood takes me and round things off with a glass or two of port or brandy, without worrying that my bank manager will be on the warpath.

Eating with friends at home means that at any stage I can find an excuse to leave the table. It might be on the pretext of refilling the pepper grinder or retrieving a tube of out-of-date mustard, giving me just enough time to check the football scores or send a couple of overdue emails.

But there’s something else going on here. In the early 1980s, I spent three years in New York. In all that time, I was invited for dinner in someone’s flat only once, and never had anyone over to mine unless it was for a couple of beers before heading out to-Luigi’s.

It struck me as odd. New Yorkers are habitually friendly and seldom lack confidence, and yet inviting someone to cross your threshold in that great city apparently triggers all sorts of awkward questions. Does it smack of desperation? Is it too intimate a gesture, or at least overfamiliar? Or, perish the thought, does it signal some sort of commitment-phobia to another human being?

London is going the same way. Whereas even ten years ago people used to talk about the capital as a series of villages, nowadays it’s a place where the impersonal triumphs over any sense of community. No wonder the dinner party is dead.

We may be squeezed together on Tubes and buses like packets of chocolate fingers but we do everything we can to keep each other at arm’s length. Coffee shops are the new living rooms; restaurants are the public places to have private conversations.

Cost doesn’t seem to count for much, despite complaints about the expense of living in London. Of course it’s cheaper to eat in than out. Just imagine how much Londoners could save each month by rustling up a curry at home rather than being diverted by a £28 ribeye steak down the road.

Yes, there is the issue of the washing up and, even more serious, the spectre of guests hanging around far too long before finally heading home, but from my experience the latter can easily be resolved.

‘Come at 8 p.m. and leave by 10 p.m.’ is always my instruction, and people seem to like it. It doesn’t fuel expectation; it’s friendly without being clawing — and it’s a good excuse occasionally to rid the kitchen table of newspapers, unopened bills and parking tickets.


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