My old friend the writer and academic David Flusfeder and I arrived early at the Ebury Hotel in Canterbury for a dinner after a literary event at the University of Kent. It was the only table our Kentish colleagues had been able to find that wasn't in a loved-up restaurant - this being the evening of 14 February. In my experience, Valentine's Day dinners à deux are always an anticlimax. If you need a special anniversary meal to call attention to your mutual love, the chances are it's already spent. The most passionate dinners, I'd argue, are in fact ante-climactic, because you've already made love before you're handed the menu.
I digress - but I only wanted to set the scene: smallish provincial hotels, often family-run, are a staple ingredient of national life, and due to John Cleese and Connie Booth's fine sitcom, the notion of dining in them has for decades now had a farcical glaze and a drizzling of outright contempt. When I was a child, my family had an ironic riff that pre-dated Fawlty Towers. Whenever we found ourselves entering the fusty Axminster-carpeted foyer of a hotel in Snoreminster, my mother would stage-whisper, "Sorry, sir, tea's off, sir", this being something that was once said to us in one such establishment, and which became for her - a transplanted American - a phrase emblematic of the untranslatable crapness of the British service industries.
Times change and nowadays you'll often find better service in Snoreminster than in the frenetic metropolises, but there remains the presumption as you cross the somnolent lobby that things may take a turn for the surly and incompetent worse. The trouble at the Ebury began after we'd scanned the dining room, not sighted our companions, and retreated to the reception desk, where a large golden tit of a bell reposed by the blotter-and-pen set. This being Valentine's Day, the perky golden nipple of this bell was crying out for a tweak - but if that weren't sufficient cause, there was also a sign taped to it: a Carrollian "Ring Me". Anyway, I dinged the necessary, and a flustered, plumpish white rabbit in a striped waistcoat materialised.
He managed to contain his irritation and directed us to wait in a scary little bar full of aggressive black vinyl furniture. Then he rematerialised behind the bar and asked if we'd like a drink - I said I'd like a Virgin Mary and he snapped: "What's that?" Emollient to a fault, David ventured:
“It's a Bloody Mary without the vodka," whereupon the infuriated creature said, "What's that?" Our fellow diners had pitched up by this stage and one began to itemise the ingredients of this outlandish beverage - but half-American as I am,
I couldn't be arsed to pander to such rudeness, so snapped: "Just give me a Coke."
Doing our nut
The same sort of chilliness was encountered when we asked for nibbles, and the fellow pointed to a row of large mason jars full of nuts on the bar. Still, eventually we solicited drinks and got on with the dining experience. David's argument was that the Ebury man was hard-pressed, had been dumped in it by colleagues, had to run the entire establishment himself etc - but we both knew the real reason: the bell that dinged for he.
I almost felt like having a word with the man, suggesting that if he didn't want punters to ring the damn thing he should remove it - or at least ditch the come-hither sign.
In fairness to the Ebury, from then on things went swimmingly. The food, courtesy of chef M Jean-Pierre Cabrol, was excellent, and although the dining room had that smallish-provincial-hotel ambience - heavy on the pile carpeting and overstuffed bourgeoisie - we had a thoroughly pleasant time. I wish I could say the same for the waiting staff. Whey-faced young women in black suits that would gladden the heart of the flintiest puritan served us with what to my mind appeared to be ill-suppressed fear. When I was the restaurant critic for the Observer, I'd often encounter such cowed behaviour, as I'd been recognised and the establishment was desperate for a good notice, but while not wishing to denigrate the reputation of this noble organ, I hardly think Real Meals has quite the same reach.
No, I suspect the White Rabbit may've metamorphosed into the Red Queen, and ensconced somewhere in the bowels of the hotel was shouting at all comers, 'Off with her head!