The 10pm curfew has been a terrible thing for the restaurant business. The shortfall in income that comes from not being able to turn a table towards the end of the evening is tricky, if not impossible, to make up, and it’s a miserable, slightly stressful business, having to urge customers to hurry and clear their plates once the clock strikes 9.30pm. But for me, at least, there’s something weirdly freeing about it. Basically, the early bird special has at last been socially sanctioned, and as a result I have reverted to type. Last week, I twice ate out at 6.30pm, and with two of my chicest girlfriends – at whose suggestion, quite brilliantly, this unfeasibly early hour was in the first place.
Growing up, we always ate our dinner, which we called our tea, at around 5.15pm in the week, and at six at the latest at the weekend – and to be frank, I liked it (not that I knew any different). For one thing, I was always hungry by then. Lying on my bed, dreaming of the day when a man in a black polo neck would whisk me off for supper (and other things) at the unimaginably late hour of 8pm, the rumblings in my stomach would usually begin at 4pm. For another, it meant you had time afterwards to flick through Smash Hits, to talk endlessly on the telephone (yes, it was in the hall) to your best friend, or even to go out. In the summer, it was very heaven. Tea, then a walk. Meeting a boy at the pub. Sitting in the park with your pals and a bottle.
Then I left home, and came south. Everyone ate later, and so did I. As the decades passed, in fact, I became increasingly militant about it. Eight o’clock was early. Nine o’clock was reasonable, especially if aperitifs were involved (“substantial nibbles”, as someone described their rightful accompaniments to me, comically, the other day). Once I had enough cash to go to the theatre or even (ye gods) the opera, I thought nothing of eating at 10.30 or later – to the point where I was slightly amazed if the person I was with said: “It’s so late, I think I’ll have something light. Fish, perhaps.” I ate exactly as I would have done three hours earlier, which is to say: with intense greed, pudding the only casualty.
When the curfew came in, I was sniffy. I would eat at 7.30, but no later. This, however, lasted all of five minutes. Freed, if only temporarily, from my cast-iron conviction that true sophistication lies in never eating before eight – metaphorically speaking, I own the black polo neck now – I have embraced 6.30pm like an old friend. Not only are restaurant staff so pleasingly delighted to see you at this hour; my long-standing fear of uninhabited dining rooms – “Will there be other people?” my brother and I anxiously used to ask our parents, en route to some inevitably tumbleweed-strewn restaurant – is safely in abeyance, given that everyone must eat earlier now.
I’m also starting to think that I might be a better – or, at any rate, more cogent – companion in the early evening; my gossip comes with an extra slice of lemon just lately. I relish the feeling of playing hooky (I usually work until 7pm) and, yes, though I can’t honestly claim to be drinking less, it’s possible that I do sleep better, even if saying so does make me sound about 100.
But there’s something else at play here, too: an ease. If I trained myself over many years for gastronomic lateness, in the manner of an athlete visiting a gym, now I’m letting myself go again. It’s oddly relaxing, even if I do worry that I’ll lose muscle tone (ie the ability to scoff steak and chips at midnight). It may even be empowering. Walking home after dinner at nine the other night, I was followed by a man who kept muttering over and over that he wanted to rob me. Once, I might have gone into the nearest shop; certainly, I would have been too full, or too weary, to run. Not this time, though. Casting him a pitying look, I broke casually into a sprint. I was home before I knew it, Newsnight and a mint tea still some little way in the future.