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March 2, 2012updated 29 Jan 2016 11:26am

Eating Out in Austerity Britain, Present Gluts and HNW Dealers

By Alessandro Tome

Chips with Everything
We’re eating out less and are being more selective over our dinner guests — and new micro-technology might take that trend even further, says Alessandro Tomé
doubt, a dining experience is not what it used to be. Of course food and taste change, and so do habits. Beyond these more obvious changes are far subtler ones, and these mostly relate to mood. Dining appeals to all our senses, and so it should, but we are not always very aware of it. Taste and smell are obvious, but what about the sight and sound and feel of food, and perhaps even more so the surroundings? Without thinking about these senses, they influence the experience, the feel, the mood, our mood. So conversely our mood influences our dining experience perhaps more than anything else.

From what I can tell, our mood, collectively, hasn’t been that good of late. This great ‘Feel-Sorry-for-Ourselves-Because-We-Overdid-It’ era, aka the Great Recession — or perhaps the First Decession, as we can’t seem to make up our minds if it’s a depression or recession — has completely changed our dining experience. Most restaurants feel different; the sound of the buzz is less buzzy, less happy.

Even in the more hushed ones, the hush sounds less hushy. You somehow sense the conversations are no longer conversational, the smiles are drawn and the few sincere ones tend to be on new faces. Waiters seem scarcer, even. Restaurateur friends of mine tell me they see stable volumes so far, but steeply dropping takings. That goes hand in hand with the rest of the feeling — we still go there but are just not enjoying it as much, because it may just be costing too much. A bit like a married man with his lover who’s getting long in the tooth.

So truffles and expensive wines are off the menu. Pasta pomodoro is a good filler, it seems. Even fish is on the bubble. This in itself is great news for the fish, and I can hear the environmentalists jumping on this one already. And so are expensive girlfriends (on the bubble, that is). It’s the circle of the life we have built and the economic policies being pursued. Less is not more, it just creates more ‘less’. Jobless, homeless, hopeless. Perhaps this era’s most appropriate description might be the Great Less-on.

People are even becoming pickier as to whom they might go out for dinner with now. Fewer restaurant visits mean you have to really make them count. Not that Angel Wife and I have noticed that much difference in our own lacklustre dining-out patterns. This is even influencing the quantity and quality of guests for home dinner parties — finally. Hosts are getting less hosty and more selective. And here some new tools may be at hand, although I fear they may end up being misguided and misused.

I have read with great angst, mixed with a smidgeon of Machiavellian curiosity, about two recent scientific advances. While they have clearly been developed for use in the improvement of our quality of life, medically speaking, I can see how they might also be acquired for the purpose of improving dinner-guest quality by the bored and wealthy and somewhat socially insecure, if not indiscriminate.

The FT recently featured two pieces. The first was on the development of a machine costing $149,000 and the size of a laser printer which enables you to read anybody’s full genome (DNA for the rest of us) in less than a day for $1,000 a pop. This will save lives. This will also allow unscrupulous insurance companies (is there any other type?) to force everyone to take these tests before they insure you to establish with near certitude your medical risk and most likely refuse to insure you altogether, remove cover for any ‘weakness’ they find, or charge you a huge premium for it. I will let your mind run riot with all other types of misuses to which this technology may be put. Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four will be a walk in the park, but gratefully I will be long dead.

On the mischievous side of things, humour me on a possible use for this and the second development. Rich, social, insecure butterflies with a diminished sense of self-worth and heightened paranoia will be able to find out at last which of their ‘friends’ are real or not.

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You see, the other FT article covered the development of edible microchips that can be integrated in pills or food and communicate to an external device how things are going on the inside. Indulge a little longer, but I think you know where I’m going with this. Said host secures cutlery utilised by all his guests at a previous dinner, hence covered in DNA, reads it to find out everything about them, physical and mental strengths and weaknesses. At the subsequent dinners, he feeds them edible microchips that further cross-reference their body’s reactions to the ‘feel’ of the evening and records any private conversations. He or she can now compute who are their real friends to take out for dinner.

I fear for the restaurants, as it will not be just a drop in spend they will suffer from, but an off-the-cliff drop in customer numbers by then. They’ll call it the Great Cessation, perhaps. The rest of us will carry on enjoying the same few hungry friends and no machines.

Illustration by Jeremy Leasor

Present Tense

Presents mean so much, don’t they? And we’re still enjoying a glut of them from the festive season — at least the ones that were actually useful, that we actually wanted or needed and that do still function. Yes that One. The only One. If you are lucky to have even got just the One. Many of us only have part of One, a hint of One or perhaps the promise of One next year. Maybe even an option on One. We might even have engaged in cheap barter arrangements like no TV remote for a month, just to secure even a glimmer of hope for One at some point in our life.

What does your choice of One say about you, I wonder? And perhaps even more pertinent might be all the failed, nearly Ones that weren’t quite right, and who gave them to us. What did they mean — was it love or spite, fun or boredom, lack of thought or care, or passion and inspiration?

Take for instance the famed Sweater Gift. What does it mean if your loved one gives you a sweater? Is it just that yours is hideous, too old, or not soft enough? Or is that how they see you — old, cuddly comfy? Or do they wish you were all that? Do they wish you dressed down and chilled out a bit more, or headed for the country more often, or didn’t look like a duck out of water when there? Or was it just a cheap deal at a friend’s sale, quantity discounted so now everyone in the house has one? One thing I’m certain of: if your partner gave it to you, sex is out if the sweater is in.

I admit to having tonnes of sweaters myself, of which I have bought only a few. Historically my mother was a great purveyor of not-so-soft sweaters. Angel Wife hasn’t given me one yet, although I do now roll in softy, cuddly ones. She cleverly always arranges for others to give them to me instead, and I always get the only One I want: her.
The Real Dealer
One of my favourite people in London is a dealer to the rich. I don’t know him very well, but many friends do, perhaps too well for their own good. He’s not cheap, but he has the best stuff, they say. I don’t use him because I don’t really like his stuff, thankfully, but it could easily lead me to ruin. He’s organised, always available on his mobile, which only the few have. He’s never far away and can deliver your fix promptly and discreetly. He has an array of runners to help, all presentable and well spoken, knowledgeable, even. If you don’t call him, he’ll make sure he calls you to press those little buttons with teasers of what he’s got and how you won’t get any unless you hurry because other, richer clients are snapping his stash up.

He knows that in one way or another we’re all somewhat addictive-compulsives, that somewhere deep inside us lies a hint of bipolarity, that hidden in the secret of our bedroom or study a slightly maniacal anally retentive but gentle beast lies and needs stroking. And he knows how to — he’s been there, too.

That makes him a most dangerously effective salesman who thankfully he has chosen to ply his skills pushing ravishingly rare and expensive watches. It certainly is (a little) healthier than the alternatives, and his after-sales service and even exchange programme are second to none. As long as you don’t mind sometimes looking like an extra on Footballers’ Wives. 
Alessandro Tomé is a contributing editor


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