Danny Wallace on surviving the great lone-diner showdown
"Who shall win our passive-aggressive stand-off?"
It’s a straight toss-up between the not-Irish Irish pub just off reception, or the Indian restaurant through the double doors.
I peek into the not-Irish Irish pub. A man is eating a giant meat sandwich under a telly that’s been set to ‘deafen all’. The Indian it is!
“How many?” says the guy at the entrance.
“Just me!” I say, and his face says it all: you’re going to take up a whole table to yourself and order half the food we’d normally sell. You slow us down. You drag us under. You belong in the not-Irish Irish pub with a giant meat bap. But I don’t belong there! I value my hearing! Plus, this is an Indian restaurant in a business hotel near an airport. Classic dining-alone territory. What does he expect? A write-up in Date Night magazine? Nobody’s saying, “Tonight let’s grab a train, then wait 40 minutes for a shuttle bus to an Indian place I know in the lobby of a drab hotel in the suburbs.”
“Sit here,” he says, grumpily sweeping his arm towards a table.
“Fine,” I say, realising I’m now going to have to out-sullen him if I am to earn any respect. I start to move my cutlery about, which is a sort of power play, to say, “I’m at my table and I’m in charge and I can move cutlery if I want.”
He flaps out a stained menu and hands it not to me but towards me, still not looking me in the eye.
I wait just a second too long – until his eye has to flicker towards me – and then I grab it. He walks off, barking orders at somebody.
“Well,” I think. “This is quite the challenge!”
For it is. Who shall win our passive-aggressive stand-off?
We both assume we are the most important person in the transaction. He the owner. Me the customer. Neither is willing to take second place. I watch as he clatters bowls and plates on to another table. He’s going to spill that if he’s not careful. I hope he spills it all.
Immediately, a waitress is there. She whips out her order pad. She’s obviously been instructed to get my order and get me out of here. Oh, really? Well, watch this.
“I’m not actually quite ready,”
I say, and inside I burst with delight. What a move! I’ll show you! You can’t hurry curry! Fifteen minutes later I am absolutely starving and desperate for her to come back.
“Excuse me,” I say, and it’s the man again. “Can I order?”
He calls to the waitress, who’s struggling because the place is suddenly packed. I know what he’s thinking. He’s thinking: “Why are you still here? You lone diners are as good as thieves!” The power is his once more.
“Yes,” says the waitress, and she takes my order. “There,” I think. “All I have to do is eat my meal and go. But I’ll take my time. I’ll be as cold with that man as he is with me. Thus, the power will return to me!”
“Water?” he asks, holding a jug.
I give him a surly “yeah”, and it takes everything within me not to add “please”.
He roughly swills water into my glass. I nod without looking at him. “Ta,” I say, but under my breath so it doesn’t count. I think we’re even now. I don’t know. I hope this is eating him up too. I’m pulling out as many little rebellions as I can.
And before too long, I feel someone squeezing behind my chair and a plate clatters on to my table. And the most extraordinary thing happens.
“Please, enjoy your meal,” says the man, his hands clasped together, smiling. “Is there anything you need? More water?”
“Well, look at this,” I think.
“A little respect! Could I have won the battle so easily?”
“That would be great!” I say, smiling, deciding to reward his humility. “Thanks!”
“Of course!” he says, and he dashes off to get the jug.
“This looks delicious!” I say, generously, because it doesn’t.
“Please enjoy!” he says, and I tuck in, so much happier now that we have resolved the tension between us. I have obviously taught him an important lesson about customer relations. You act surly, you get surly. You want me out? I’m staying in. In many ways, I am the perfect customer because I’m always happy to educate people on how they make their living.
I finish my meal, and he bounds up with the card machine. He attends to me before any another table! He is doing everything he can to treat me efficiently. I’m a priority. Miracles can happen!
“Bye!” I say, delighted with how my evening has turned out. It is only when I am in the lift on my way back up to my room that it all makes sense. In the mirror, I see with horror that where once there was a mere chip, there is now curry. On my shoulder and down my back. The man spilled half a bhuna down my jacket. No wonder he was suddenly so polite! I’m a walking advertisement for his restaurant! I look like I enjoyed my meal so much I decided to wear it home. He won!
The following evening, I sit at a table for one under a deafening TV eating a giant meat sandwich. Somewhere nearby, I suspect the man is celebrating a spectacular double victory.
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