The food-time continuum

Time is to restaurants what gravity is to Earth – freaking necessary. They revolve around the clock in so many aspects: bookings, arrivals, prep and service to name the obvious. Any restaurant that doesn’t grab time by the balls and treat it right just falls apart like a soggy souffle.

The crucial bit the eater cares about (aside from how it tastes) is that length of time between ordering the food and getting the food. You and your co-diners can be talking each other under the table, but there’s always that moment when you suddenly become aware that the food isn’t here yet. A heightened awareness kicks in. The descent into irritation befalls you: you’ve officially surpassed Acceptable Waiting Time.

AWT is really a personal thing, kicking in typically somewhere after the 20 minute mark. The body language that comes with the realisation catches like a yawn. As soon as one person checks their watch or looks around the restaurant, so does anyone else you’re eating with. Congratulations, you just triggered everyone else’s realisation of passing the AWT zone too.

The past 23 minutes didn’t really feel like you were waiting. Drinks were poured, you chatted about whether you should have ordered nibbles, the probably unpretentious menu, how you’re sick of exposed lightbulbs in restaurants, how that couple over there aren’t talking to each other. But now you’re suddenly hungrier than you realised. You start eating all the table bread. Your conversation becomes boring. You keep thinking about what you ordered. How you wish you’d snacked before you came out instead of leaving loads of stupid ‘room’ for your awesome dinner. You perk up when you see a waiter – or anyone – walk by your table. The longer this goes on the more you’re convinced it’s the worst thing that’s happened to anyone, ever.

At what point do you ask where the food is? You can’t do it right after you’re post-Acceptable Waiting Time – it’s too soon and surely erring on the side of impatient bastard. But the longer it takes the more it feels like it’s going to arrive any minute – a bit like being on hold – you’ll probably get through just as you’re about to hang up. So you ask your fellow diner should you ask where the food is? And depending on the consensus, you either continue on the aforementioned groundhog day of first-world hunger in perpetuity, or you need to psyche yourself up to call your waiter and ask the semi-dreaded question.

The best thing you can hope for to appease the situation is that the waiter comes to you first with the “sorry for your wait, it’ll be here in a few minutes’ spiel. Otherwise you’ve got to go through the anxiety of asking them to check, and they usually still only come back with ‘it’ll be here in a few minutes’.

And then: a waiter! Carrying plates! To our table! This is it, coming through the other side of hunger to the moment of truth. Your pleasure and satiation lies on that piece of porcelain. It’s what you waited for, and damn it better be good. My soufflé’s set down with a polite ‘enjoy’, and it’s not soggy at all.

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