I used to have a friend who was delightful in all respects until you got her into a restaurant.
At that point, she would become a monster. She would sneer and nitpick at the staff; she would critique the menu in a loud voice (‘Don’t these people realise that using the word ‘jus’ just marks them out as suburban?’), and she would make it a point of honour to complain about at least one dish over the course of a meal.
What delighted her to the most was to enter into some kind of a conference with the manager or the chef. That way, she could truly impress her levels of discernment upon them. Alternatively, she would enjoy sending plates of food back to the kitchen and refusing to pay.
Funnily enough, we don’t hang out any more.
So my friend was an extreme case (she also used to conveniently forget to bring any money with her to the pub) – but I think that suspending judgement is an underrated virtue. When I go out for an evening, my main aim is to enjoy the company of friends. I am not trying to attract the attention of The Times in case Giles Coren’s slot becomes free (nasty thought). Unless the food is actively poisonous, or the service deliberately negligent, I’d rather grin and bear it than make a fuss.
This is not just a British aversion to complaining; it’s just a commitment to having a good night out. Sometimes, restaurants deliver me the most mind-bogglingly wonderful taste sensations; sometimes the best that can be said is that they fill me up. But if the latter’s true, I see no reason to not to put it to the back of your mind, swallow down the rough wine and find something interesting to talk about.
Everyone’s a connoisseur these days. We post photos of our latest meals on Facebook in the way that Girl Guides line up badges on their sleeves. This means that we’re all feeling a little bit vulnerable: what if we like the wrong things? What if our exemplary dining experience turns out to have been defrosted from a Brakes Bros packet? We don’t want to be caught out. If we’re not sure of our taste buds, the only answer is to become hyper-critical of everything. After all, you’re always the winner if you think everyone else is shit, right? Right?
Well no, not really. What you’re actually doing is fabricating awkward and embarrassing social situations that alienate your friends.
Here’s an alternative suggestion: try a discernment sandwich. Exercise your discernment when you’re choosing you’re restaurant, and after you’ve finished your meal. In between those times, do your best to enjoy yourself. Order things that you think might be nice, rather than things that you think the chef has the most chance of screwing up. Steer clear of wines that look a bit dangerous. Forgive the mistakes of young, inexperienced staff. If it’s really awful – and you’re insecure enough to worry that your friends will like you less if you don’t spot this fact – lean across the table and whisper, ‘Bloody hell, this is the worst lasagne I’ve eaten in ages. Still, lovely to see you.’
There’s nothing remotely discerning about snobbery. It’s a boring blunt instrument employed by people who have no notion of pleasure. Conversely, there’s enormous discernment in employing well-honed social skills to turn a ropey meal into a pleasurable night out – as opposed to creating a drama in which you’re the tragic hero.