The River Cafe

Much is made of how difficult it is to learn to live with someone else. But for me, the bigger difficulty has always been in learning to be on my own.

And yet, I know that a little separation is necessary. Some things are better off achieved alone. I don’t understand, for example, why women insist on dragging their gurning partners around the shops when they would be much better off at home. I also fail to appreciate my annual invitation to Herbert’s office Christmas party. Thanks, but the offer of reconstituted turkey and limp sprouts isn’t enough to swing it.

Herbert is always claiming he needs more ‘Herbert time’ (which is a euphemism for wanking himself stupid and playing on his XBox 360, possibly simultaneously), but this tends to involve me leaving the house, rather than him striking out on his own. However, I’m beginning to take this need seriously. In all frankness, now that we’ve been together for fifteen years, I’m conscious that we both need to bring something back to the dining table to talk about.

Today, then, I set myself a special challenge: to take myself out for lunch. And it must be good lunch, too; a sandwich in a cafe doesn’t count. In fact, it is a very special lunch indeed, for I have just come across the information that the River Cafe is offering a 3-course weekday lunch for £28. If I don’t go alone, I won’t get the chance at all.

I confess that my stomach lurches as I enter. The River Cafe is a great, bustling monument to the chattering classes, and here am I, silent and a little apologetic. The waitress sits me next to the wood-fired oven ‘so that I can watch,’ and I’m grateful for the occupation. Nevertheless, after a few seconds of gazing at the general air of purpose, I get out a book from my bag and bury my head in it. When the waitress returns with chewy yellow bread, I gulp and order an aperitivo, prosecco with blood orange and Campari. Drinking alone, at lunchtime: very decadent.

I sink into my book, and try to block out the noise of the two men seated next to me. In their matching denim shirts, they are engaged in a peculiarly middle class fight, blokishly daring each other to opt for the slow braise of beef shin rather than the squid salad. I’ve ordered the braise already; and a heavy glass of wine to go with it.

I feel rather sleepy and luxuriant: buttery ravioli, completely surrendered beef, sticky polenta. I text Herbert to tell him what I’m doing, and am then piqued when he doesn’t reply. Does he disapprove?

More likely he’s got his phone on mute. How infantile marriage makes us sometimes, with its merging of personalities and practices, the way it brings your own finances under your partner’s account. I feel guilty having this sumptuous time while he’s stuck at work, but more than that, I feel guilty for just being alone, and for spending my own money on myself . We’re trained to say, ‘Because I’m worth it,’ but only when it applies to a bottle of cheap shampoo.

Later, at home, I ask Herbert,

‘Did you get the text about what I did at lunchtime?’

‘Hm, yes, I did,’ he says, and that is that. He is neither excited nor angered by the information – or even particularly interested. My lunchtimes are, after all, my own business.

Recipe: Braised Shin of Beef

The River Cafe is running it’s Winter Set Lunch on weekdays until 31st March. More details here.

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10 Responses to The River Cafe

  1. I love this post. I do find it hard to do things on my own – visiting museums and galleries for example, I hate myself for it. And yet I’ve travelled alone (see and loved it. But there does seem to be a stigma about eating on your own and it can make you feel awkward – should I have just picked up a sarnie at Pret?!

    But I applauded like a seal when I read you took yourself to River Cafe – quite wonderful. I LOVE people watching so when I do dine alone, normally abroad, I try NOT to read a book but to enjoy my food and wine, watch everyone else, get lost in my thoughts. It is a truly decadent, hedonistic pleasure.

    At least they sat you in a good spot too – my pet hate is being sat in the corner when I’m alone – and no-one puts Baby… xxx

    • Betty Herbert 18/01/2011 at 20:24 #

      I’ll try to jettison the book next time – although actually reading is a real luxury to me, because Herbert makes so much noise when he’s at home and I can’t concentrate. Now galleries: LOVE visiting those alone. I used to have a Tate staff card that got me in to any exhibition in London. Bliss.

  2. TeacherMommy 18/01/2011 at 16:04 #

    I have been exploring recently (in official therapy and in unofficial friend/true love therapy) my problem with feeling like I’m allowed to do/buy things for myself unless there’s a justifiable reason: justified according to whom is very up for debate. Even buying myself a $7 late lunch of soup and salad at a local restaurant seems like something I must hide from those I know. And it’s the hiding that is the real sickness, I think, this idea that somehow I can’t permit anyone to know that I am not ascetic and self-sacrificing and extraordinarily thrifty.

    When, as you said, MTL could not care less that I went and had some soup and a salad. He WOULD, however, care if I started keeping secrets (or more specifically, lying) about such things. That is the violation of the relationship, not having a meal with the companionship of a good book.

    Your particular lunch sounds lovely. Here’s hoping the guilt goes away, for both of us.

    • Betty Herbert 18/01/2011 at 20:26 #

      So true. But what you say also reminds me of something a friend told me recently. Adults who grew up in families where there wasn’t enough money (which was true for me, I don’t know about you) are often furtive with their spending. But apparently we also keep our cupboards over-stocked because we’re afraid of running out. So at least we can always throw together dinner for 20 at short notice, eh?

  3. Little Brown Bird 18/01/2011 at 20:15 #

    I’ve always meant to go to The River Café. I think it’s time to go. On my own. x

  4. puncturedbicycle 22/01/2011 at 15:57 #

    I love the River Cafe! And I could definitely have lunch there on my own, but I wouldn’t expect to enjoy it as much as if I had company.
    Your theory about growing up in a family where money is tight is probably true, though I suspect it’s more to do with anxiety around money; even if there is enough money, if the parents project a lot of worry and tension about it, it trickles down.
    In a similar vein, for most of my life I have rationed luxury products like perfume and makeup, so that I ended up with many pots a quarter full of something that used to be lovely congealing at the bottom. I’m much better at using stuff up now though!

    • Betty Herbert 24/01/2011 at 09:20 #

      I really recognise that – saving things for ‘best’ and then wasting them because of it. I do the same thing with clothes – if I’ve bought something nice, I don’t wear it out of a kind of respectful awe. What a waste!

  5. Lucy Waters 26/01/2011 at 11:56 #

    Just catching up on this one – and what a fascinating range of topics your lovely post has thrown up! I’ve only ever managed one proper meal (main and pudding and wine :-) ) on my own – had the restaurant booked but a friend had a last minute emergency and I decided I’d get brave and use it as an excuse to break my duck. Enjoyed myself but couldn’t imagine doing it without a magazine … and I’ve not done it since – which I’m just thinking I should do something about!

    I’m also thinking a group booking for The River Cafe is on the cards :-)

    Ooh – expensive make-up bought and not used – guilty! I have more than Boots and over the past year I’ve been trying to use everything up rather than buying anything new … but I suspect a lot of it is probably out of date – oh well. I do remember having to throw away a hardly used Touche Eclat … it had grown mould!

    • Betty Herbert 26/01/2011 at 16:39 #

      Oh god, the number of lipsticks I’ve thrown out because they’ve dried out. Can’t bear to even think about it.

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