You know the picture: candles; low lighting; background muzak, possibly light classical. And tablecloths, preferably white - there just have to be tablecloths. The Maitre welcomes you, your coats are taken, and you are conducted to your table. Or perhaps you will have an aperitif in the bar, peruse the menu, choose your food, and then be brought to the table when the starter is ready.
The clientele will be mostly couples like you. Perhaps the odd four or six, say a birthday celebration, but well-mannered and quiet. Indeed any raising of voice will feel like a piercing of the pall of respectability that covers the room. Conversation with your companion will be measured, and you will be alert to whether any other couple are eating in silence and whether that indicates that they have been together for a long time and have little left to say to each other (an assumption for the avoidance of doubt that may not be true).
In 21st century London there aren't many of those places left, with their DJ attired waiters hovering obsequiously ready to remove plates after an appropriate professional pause that could be timed down to the second, or topping up your wine the moment you have drunk another centimetre's worth. And one might say, good that we have moved on.
But it leaves the question of how much background noise in a restaurant you can stand, especially when you are older and the hearing is not as sharp as it used to be. For every location I write about in this piece, I have an image of somewhere I have eaten; however, it would be inappropriate to name names, and probably readers can envisage their own location for one or more of these scenarios.
What I cannot work out is whether background noise, by music or anything else, has increased in volume over the years, or whether it is that I am becoming increasingly intolerant of struggling to hear what others are saying. I fear it is more the latter than the former, but this does not stop me commenting on the evolution of ambience in recent times, albeit the experiences being punctuated by that arid time over lockdown height when there was no news we could impart to friends of having done anything interesting.
The restaurant is still the safest for low level background music and lively, but not obtrusive, chatter from fellow diners. Yet this cannot be guaranteed, and much depends on when in the week you go along, my advice being to be careful about Friday and Saturday evening where you anticipate a mix of ages in the demographic. I am fond of a largish establishment in the Kings Cross area, but was taken aback on arrival for a Friday evening family celebration for six, when the music was hammering out at a decibel level near to what I remember from a Club (yes, I know that a Club today would be much louder). I decided to accept the table without going for a quieter corner, on the basis that the younger ones would like it, only to be told later by one of those younger ones that it was difficult to hear someone at the other end of the table.
The major change in dining habits in London, certainly, has come from the gastropub, though that term belies the range of places serving food. It amazed me to check out and find that the smoking ban in pubs was in 2008, since when the industry has had to work out how to entice people with food provision and still keep the customer constituencies happy. Some gave up pretty quickly: the true gastropub looks like a pub but isn't, and old George who has been going there for 50 years may still be able to get his quiet pint through to early evening, stuffed away in a corner, but after that he will be unwelcome as Giles and Emma have the table booked for 6pm. Others embrace the free for all, where you can take your chance on a booking for a meal, and hope that you will not find four or five big lads dosing pints of San Miguel next to your left shoulder - more on that below. Good judgement on this depends on understanding how the establishment functions during its opening hours.
The other gastropub option is that pretentious 'pub and dining room', or worse 'pub/bar and kitchen' (you mean you eat in the kitchen?), where there is a physically separated dining area, often with an open kitchen pleasingly in view. Perfect mix - you could even have a drink in the bar beforehand, and nobody gets fussed if drinkers spill over into the dining area for spare tables after 9.30/10pm. However, some establishments are weakening, and I can think of one in North London I have loved to bits, where the discrete dining 'room' was stopped, incidentally before the pandemic, and now it is a free for all. As a result of which I will not now book there to eat.
Quality and range of food is a subject for another time, but I will finish for today on a cautionary note. On the spur of the moment I booked - in person - a table for Saturday evening dinner at an attractive pub in the part of North London where I now live, a 'proper pub', as some of my friends would say. The configuration allowed a section of the bar to be reserved for dining. The table looked good, tucked in a corner, and to be fair to a degree the staff member said that the table next door was booked.
Well there are bookings and bookings. When we arrived, there were six or so late 20s/early 30s somethings sitting chatting at the table next door. Then more arrived, and more, and more, for what was evidently a celebration. Maybe food was going to be involved at some point, but not until there had been a radical lining of stomachs with beer, wine and cocktails. The party got up to around 20 folk, There was a lot of standing.
Now this is not a whinge at them: there was no swearing or bad behaviour, and they were simply having a good time. We were out of place. So eventually, when the big lads looming over shoulder scenario emerged, we got up, grabbed our plates, drinks, coats and belongings, and decamped to a weirdly now quiet other area of the bar, and a table for six which my companion grabbed, shooting a menacing look at the bar staff to dare to move us - they were sheepishly submissive in response.
I am going to take that last story as a criticism that I did not do enough due diligence before booking. So it remains - you get what you book for.
Colin Davey is a writer, historian, speaker, occasional tour guide (professionally qualified), and former managing partner of a City law firm.