Today we went out to lunch. Third time lucky. We were going to meet friends who live in north London mid-way between us and them for lunch in a country pub early in the year, and it snowed. I cancelled the pub, and we rescheduled for March. They all had flu. I cancelled the pub again, and we rescheduled for today. Having seen the lane leading to the pub I am now sure we would not have got there in the snow, even assuming that either party could have made it up the A12. It was good to see them, and if we'd had to cancel for a third time then I'd have had to think of a different pub, since I couldn't have faced making a fourth booking.
The trouble with going out to lunch is that it does chop into the day. It didn't seem worth putting on my gardening clothes for half a morning's work, and then having to change out of them and spend a quarter of an hour scrubbing my hands to try and get them to a state where they'd look respectable eating lunch in a fairly smart pub with three committed urbanites. Instead I caught up with some admin, and went for a walk around the garden. Garden owners tend not to stroll in a leisurely fashion around their own gardens. Monty Don writes that he does, every day when he is at home, but most of us charge out there intent on making progress with whatever we're working on currently.
The primroses have made enormous cushions. Something about the growing conditions in the past year has really suited primroses. It isn't just the ones here: the primroses at work are looking equally huge and luxuriant. I have been trying to establish primroses in the bank below the daffodil lawn, but the ones at the bottom of the garden are doing much better. Even the plants growing in the bed around the trio of Betula nigra, where the soil gets pretty dry, are doing spectacularly well. They have started seeding themselves into the shady end of the lawn, where the grass is thin, along with violets, so that without doing anything myself to achieve the effect I have a small flowery mead. Gardening is much easier if you work with the natural inclinations of plants, so I had better accept that the primrose bank was not such a good idea, and that I have a very nice primrose lawn, only not where I intended it to be. Maybe the bank is too dry. Or too sunny. Or too riddled with voles.
Traffic on the A12 was running freely, something you can never count on, and the pub was where the Satnav said it would be. The decor was subtly more posh Essex and less the stripped down Aldeburgh look than it appeared in the photos on the website, and I'd have preferred it without the (admittedly not too loud) background music, but it looked promising, wide range of cask ales on offer, reasonable menu at sensible prices, friendly staff. I'd left it a day or two late to make my final booking, and they only just squeezed in our table of five when I rang, but made an effort to fit us in when I demurred at a two o'clock start for lunch.
I'm really not sure how I'd rate the lunch experience. On the plus side, the food was pretty good, and they were accommodating about switching mashed potato for the roast specified on the menu. On the minus side, they brought two hot main courses some time before the others, so that our friends ended up starting to eat while their daughter and the Systems Administrator and I remained foodless. That's bad. When you go out to eat with other people you would like to all eat at the same time. OK, maybe not in a party of a dozen, unless you are at a swish restaurant rather than a gastropub, but with five people you expect to see five main courses pretty much simultaneously. Further on the minus side they forgot one main course entirely, so the SA and I sat staring at our plates of untouched food (mostly salad, luckily) to show solidarity with the daughter while her parents ploughed on through their roast meat and potatoes. On the plus side, the waitress was apologetic and offered the daughter a free drink on the house. She's clearly under-age, so that was not going to be a very costly gesture, but it was gracious. However, the waitress then forgot to bring the drink until reminded. Service was slow, and with a table booked for one we were still waiting for puddings (for those having them) and coffee at gone half past two. On the plus side, they voluntarily deleted the late main course from the bill. Would I go there again? Probably, if I wanted to meet somebody in that part of Essex, but the SA and I wouldn't drive down there ourselves just for lunch. The pub was The White Hart in Margaretting Tye, if you want to try it for yourself.
The SA and I very rarely do go out to lunch, except when on holiday. It's partly down to finances. When you decide to downshift, you forego regular eating out. But it's also because we don't generally want to. We can both cook, and both like cooking. I have very rarely eaten a meal out and thought that at the pure food level I had consumed something delicious and fantastic that we couldn't have done ourselves at home. Deep fried dishes are one exception, hence my devotion to fish and chips and tempura batter when eating out. Also savoury tartlets involving flaky pastry, since I only do shortcrust. But bye and large, leaving aside the presentation, I haven't often put something in a restaurant in my mouth, been blown away by the taste and texture, and known that we could never, ever make something like that ourselves. And it would still go against the grain to pay £9.95 a head for glorified bangers and mash when we could buy sausages every bit as good in the farm shop and have it at home for under a fiver for two all-in, provided we could be bothered to peel our own potatoes, even if I were as rich as Warren Buffett.
But mainly, lunch out does eat into the day. It's fine when you're meeting friends, especially those that live at a distance, but not for the two of us. By the time I've changed, and cleaned myself up, and we've driven somewhere, and waited for the food to arrive, and the bill to arrive, and driven back, that's two or three hours gone out of the middle of the day that I could have spent in the garden. And then I've probably eaten more than I normally would at lunchtime, and will never get back into the swing of things because I'm too busy digesting. The SA and I have all evening to stare at each other over plates of food and exchange whatever news and views we have. And there is no risk that somebody will want to explain today's specials, or clear our plates, or ask whether everything is all right, just as one of us is getting to the punchline of a story.
Admit it. Eating out is supposed to be a treat, but how often have you been out for a meal with a group of people when nobody has been unhappy about something? The soup was lukewarm, or the main course was over-salted to the point of inedibility, or the puddings took ages to arrive, or the coffee arrived ten minutes before them, or the tea consisted of a pot of water, no longer boiling, and a teabag. I am aghast each time I read a restaurant review in one of the papers where half the dishes were judged not very nice, the service was sloppy, the bill came to sixty quid a head, and yet the reviewer gave it seven out of ten.