Wednesday, 24 October 2012

The New Socialising

I went to a party on Saturday.  I don't often get invited to parties.  It was a perfectly good party: in a bar, with food and drink and company and though I didn't know many of the people there, they all seemed nice and friendly.

The day after the party I finished the book 'The Teleportation Accident' by Ned Beauman, where the narrator of the tale states:

"Compare the Venice of the late renaissance … to the Berlin of Weimar … to whatever city would turn out to be most fashionable in 2012, and you would find the same empty people going to the same empty parties and making the same empty comments about the same empty efforts, with just a few spasms of worthwhile art going on at the naked extremities. Nothing ever changed. That was equivalence."

If that's his definition of equivalence then Saturday's party gave me a sense of equivalence.  It was very similar to parties that I used to attend in the days when I attended more parties than I do now.  I wouldn't suggest that any of my parties bear much resemblance those that went on in Isherwood's Berlin, but they certainly bear a great similarity to each other.  The parties haven't changed much, but the people at the parties have changed quite a lot.  I used to go to parties with other teenagers when I was a teenager myself.  I then went to university parties, then parties for people in their mid-twenties.  I am now more likely to attend Christening parties, 40th birthday parties or divorce parties.

  If one defines parties by a rather all-encompassing definition that involves a reasonable number of people who get together at a specific venue for the purpose of eating, drinking, chatting and perhaps dancing, then this is what I mean by the fact that the parties haven't changed very much, certainly from when I was a teenager and probably from way back in the days of the Weimar.  A graph of time (x axis) versus change in party-style (y axis) would look very much like a flat-line.  If I plotted a different graph of my age (x axis) versus suitability for this kind of socialising (y axis), it would look more like the parabola above.  The far left-hand side would be me at School the far right me now aged 36 and the peak represents me around 25.

School socialising was terrible.  I knew it at the time and I know it now.  Being at a Boarding School meant that Saturday night was the only night with potential for socialising.  The pressure one felt on a Saturday was acute.  Add to this pressure a lack of funds, lack of any real social skills (especially where members of the opposite sex were concerned) and a likelihood of not being served alcohol in any decent establishment and you created a potent cocktail to guarantee social failure.  It's not a though it was just pubs that wouldn't serve us; we were lucky to get served alcohol in one of the local curry houses.  An order of 5 poppadoms and 5 pints of lager was common and there wasn't much chance of making contact with the opposite sex in the window table of Amran's in Bedford.  Likewise a lack of funds meant that one had to nurse each pint for around 90 minutes to make sure you weren't left dry by 9pm.  The second half of the pint tasted how I imagine the dregs of lager being poured down the sink the morning after a party would taste if one were curious or desperate enough to take a sip.

By my mid-20s, I was at party peak.  Funds were no longer an issue, getting served was no longer tricky and with the 'Loaded' version of the New Lad dead by 2002, it was fine to wear fitted floral shirts out in public.  Many contemporaries remained incapable of talking to members of the opposite sex, instead employing the tactic of 'separate a girl from her group of friends and then grind like there's no tomorrow'.  It wasn't successful.  But doing what we were doing felt about right.  Quaffing a bottle of absinthe before taking a bus to Loop bar felt like the right thing to do, with all problems associated with youth, finances and shyness removed.

But I've come out the other side now and I'm nearing the bottom of the parabola again.  The parties are the same but I've changed.  Frankly I feel a little embarrassed doing the same kind of socialising that I used to do (albeit unsuccessfully) aged 17.  I know this is my problem and few other people seem to have similar concerns, but it still leaves me pondering: What's next?  What's the new socialising?  Is it only canapes, dinner parties, kitchen suppers and Burial on the ipod if one wants to socialise in groups?  Or can I spend my time walking round Victorian graveyards on my own without feeling weird?

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Food *AND* drink

Another post about food I'm afraid, so if you're one of those people who eats in order to live, you might want to look away now.

One of the main things that makes food (and by this I really mean restaurant dining) so interesting is the perpetual need for reinvention.  Lots of restaurants tend to look at bit old-hat after they've been open a few years and unless you're serving uber-traditional fare (which can itself be rather daring) the chances are that you'll be next year's fish and chip paper.  Restaurants come and go; many go because they are not very good, or they are unlucky, or they're a poor business model, or people simply get bored of them,  There's certainly no shortage of people with an idea (nay, a concept) willing to take their place.

Korean food seems to be big at the moment, but it was Peruvian last year, small plates the year before, pop-ups the year before that, all the way back to when extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar in little china bowls on the table seemed rather high-class.

But it's the new-ish concept of ultra-limited menus that surprises me, both in terms of concept and popularity.  It's barely a concept - making your menu smaller and smaller until you end up with just two things on the menu seems to obviate the point of a restaurant.  When I go to a restaurant I expect choice and sometimes I don't know what I want until I get there.  I'm not suggesting that I'm the sort of person who will go to McDonald's for a hangover burger and once there will change my mind and have a McGrape or a McCarrot but I like to feel when spending more money that I'm at least going to have a choice.  Otherwise it's rather like dining at home.  When cooking at home I make one meal and the absence of choice is accepted as one of the inevitable drawbacks of eating in.

London restaurateurs have managed to make people believe that offering a far less extensive menu is a guaranteed sign that what is on offer will be great.  There's partial logic in this - if the restaurant has fewer things to concentrate on it might be able to make the small number of things that it makes a little better.  But surely this doesn't usually work.  Pizza joints, curry houses, chicken shops - these are the traditional homes of the 'one product' restaurant and they're the sort of places that provide grisly mixtures of protein, bread and sauce rather than high-end cuisine.

The opening in London of Tramshed, Burger and Lobster and Bubbledogs all in the last year or so herald the new breed of ultra-limited menu joints.  Tramshed only serves chicken and steak.  Burger and Lobster has only two dishes on the menu (though there's a fair few in between posh crustacean and fast-food meat-between-bread).  

Surely the most ridiculous idea is that of bubbledogs, a restaurant that serves hot-dogs and champagne.  That's right, the 'barely-meat' staple of the monstrously fat American red-neck and the world's most expensive sparkling wine.  Champagne got all tarnished when footballers decided that Cristal (with its nasty orange plastic wrapper) was the drink for them, but surely the generally accepted advice that champagne can be drunk with anything is being pushed a little by pairing it with that pink offal-tube usually to be found swimming in it's own bile at the base of a cart in Central Park.  The converts will inevitably say that these are not your common or garden hot-dogs, these hot-dogs are made with properly sourced meat, with lovingly crafted toppings.  But it's still a hot-dog.  These things, like burgers, we not supposed to be restaurant food.  That's why they have a piece of bread on either side, so that you can pick them up and eat them on the go.

What's next?  I will not be satisfied until the first branch of 'Salt and Pepper' opens, a restaurant dealing only in seasoning, where pink Himalayan sea-salt flakes are complemented by 'Grains of Paradise' peppercorns.  Trust me, some dick-head would go.