Meals that matter: What every diner brings to the table

by Susannah Walker / 13 April, 2016
Dawn in Darlinghurst, Sydney, 1997. It’s both very early and very late. We’re still up, still out. But before we sleep, we need to eat.

Our straggly band of six slinks along Darlinghurst Rd and into a “restaurant” which serves German and Austrian fare of the most hearty and fried-to-hell kind.

As usual, no one greets us on arrival, so we claim a booth in the wood-panelled gloom at the back, sinking into our seats, sunglasses still on.

A 60-something waitress sporting a magnificent bouffant, nasty nylon uniform, thick accent and even thicker blue eyeshadow, takes our orders with more than a whiff of indifference. This turns to disdain when I have the temerity to ask for a skinny flat white. I receive a long, cool look, before being informed they don’t serve skinny milk, but if I go and buy a bottle from the supermarket next door, they can work with that. The waitress clomps off and we cry with laughter.
As when we gaze at a work of art, or sit in the audience at a play, when we eat out we are active participants in the theatre. We bring all that we are in that moment to the table, and even if we return, the alchemy can never be the same.

The food — crunchy slabs of moist chicken schnitzel as big as your thigh — is plonked in front of us shortly after. Like the “service” and the frozen-in-time décor, there’s no artistry about it. But it’s bloody good because it’s exactly what we want, just what we need. We are soothed, amused, replete. Happy.

That memory is a life marker, of a time and a place, and a schnitzel.

Our lives might be measured by memorable meals. You’ll have your own signifiers. The meal when you realised you were falling in love. The dish that transports you to a city you once lived in. The flavours that remind you of childhood. That restaurant around the corner where you are welcomed like a friend — that says, you belong here.

Food that met your mood, or changed it for the better. Food as celebration, as seduction, as distraction. As a prelude, the aftermath, or the main swoon-worthy event.

As when we gaze at a work of art in a gallery or sit in the audience at a play, when we eat out we are active participants in the theatre. We bring all that we are in that moment to the table, and even if we return, the alchemy can never be the same.

The holy restaurant trinity is food, service and setting. But that elusive thing, the X factor that makes a meal truly great? It’s the feeling it creates.

This editorial is published in the May 2016 issue of Metro, on sale now.

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