Eating out on Valentine's Day
Donald Reid wonders whether the classic candlelit table for two is really the most intimate way to enjoy food on Valentine’s Day
St Valentine’s Day is anticipated with equal amounts of optimism and dread in the restaurant trade. No different from the rest of us, then, though for different reasons.
As buoyed as owners are by a full restaurant and healthy champagne sales, staff both front and back must resign themselves to a room full of tables for two, the dullness of special menus and an atmosphere dampened by whispering conversation and soppy music. Never mind the fact that they’re working, therefore (generally) not romancing. How they long for a bit of drama, a flying glass of wine or a sudden, stiletto-stomping exit with the sea bass hardly touched. But oh no, the guy on table four is trying to get down on one knee.
There is, however, an alternative vision of romantic dining and it chimes with a style of eating that’s being seen more and more in restaurants in Scotland. This is the rather libertarian concept that sharing your dining space, and your food, can be much sexier and spontaneous than sedate, formal meals for two.
The idea of numerous dishes on a table, jointly chosen and generally shared, rather than the more rigid regime of ‘what I’m having and what they’re having’, is enjoying a resurgence in Glasgow and Edinburgh eating spots. Mostly it’s under the guise of various forms of tapas, whether ‘authentic’ Spanish tapas (most notably recently from Allan Mawn at Pinxtos on Glasgow’s Dumbarton Road), ‘pan-Asian tapas’ (at the new Mamasan in Bath Street, also Glasgow), ‘Italian tapas’ (at the Italian Caffe-Enoteca on Albion Street in the Merchant City) or even the more prosaic-sounding but long-standing International Starters on Commercial Quay in Leith, Edinburgh. Add to the mix the platters and ‘sharing plates’ of anti-pasto-style meats and cheeses now on offer at many bars, bistros and brasseries.
According to Iggy Campos, proprietor of Igg’s Spanish restaurant and Barioja tapas bar in Edinburgh, the reason that tapas is so embedded in Spanish culture is because food isn’t about feeding, it’s about bringing people together. ‘When we eat, food is placed in the centre of the table, and we all share from the same plate. Paella is the classic example. It happens in restaurants too, because eating out has its origins in the home,’ he says. When taking tapas orders at Barioja he winces when he hears diners say ‘I want albondigas, I want calamares.’ It should be about the table, he insists.
Such is Iggy’s insistence that the intimacy of sharing food is almost a prerequisite for intimacy in other ways, the Valentine’s menu at Igg’s is structured in such a way that the only starters and desserts available are for sharing. ‘They go in the middle of the table,’ he explains. ‘Couples have to get closer to eat it. It also means when they kiss afterwards they’ll have the same flavour on their lips.’
Then there’s the concept of the big table. Gusto, the new incarnation of Est Est Est on George Street in Edinburgh, opened its doors in November 2007. It’s still Italian, it’s still aiming at a similar audience and it’s still part of the Living Ventures portfolio, just with a good twist of upmarket, 21st century style shaken in. Right at the heart of the restaurant is their ‘con amici’ table, a slightly raised, ten-metre-long marble-topped table with seating for around 40. ‘Con amici’ means ‘with friends’, and while it’s popular for a large group booking, in everyday use it can end up meaning ‘with strangers’. ‘It’s the table that gives the restaurant its atmosphere and vibe,’ says assistant general manager Kevin Smith, as he explains the intricacies of fitting various groups of two or three around the table. ‘Not everyone is keen on it at first,’ Smith indicates, ‘but there’s something about the way the table works which makes it more intimate.’
Yet, eating con amici shouldn’t be that far from our dining consciousness. In the unlikely event we haven’t encountered a common table in Italy, Spain or elsewhere in the continent, schools and workplaces commonly have canteen catering with long tables and benches. There’s no doubt it encourages conversation, chance encounters and even a bit of flirting. Regulars at Glasgow’s Wagamama often cite its long tables as one of the draws of the place, the obvious simplicity of the concept enhancing the wholesomeness of the food and the straightforward enjoyment of eating it. Sexier than an evening among napkin-flouncing waiters and Chris de Burgh on loop? You’ve got to hope so.