A Very Moving Experience
The Stafford Hotel dinner was the finale of our three-week London shopping spree, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to furnish our apartment in antiques. With the British pound just over a dollar, even with travel and shipping costs, we could buy what we needed, ship the goods home and, big bonus for us, still on budget, fit in a long weekend in Paris. All this for a fraction of what it would cost at New York prices. Once we did the math, my husband, Michael, booked the flight, and I checked in with a London colleague to find a hotel.
"The Stafford," Arnold said. "Service is top-notch. Rooms are charming. Modern bathrooms. Do not miss high tea. My personal favorite. And have at least one dinner at the hotel. Pricey, but worth it."
Three months later, with the assistance of a knowledgeable consultant and a shipping agent, we had toured the antique markets, bought everything on our list at bargain prices, at least by New York standards, and were packed and ready to head home to await the arrival of our stash. Michael made dinner reservations and prepared to blow what remained of our budget for a festive, final meal to celebrate our success.
The Hotel Manager informed us that diners were typically black-tie affairs, which we clearly did not have on hand. Second best was business attire, so Michael put on a tie and blazer with his last pair of clean khakis, and I squeezed into my emergency black travel dress, which barely fit after three weeks of unbridled vacation eating without a scale to keep me in check. We took the elevator to the lobby and walked down one flight of stairs to the restaurant, located in a lavishly decorated basement. The walls were covered in gold flocked wallpaper, the floors in dark blue oriental rugs. I drooled over an Italian chandelier, a French mirror, and an eighteenth-century English sideboard.
The regal decorations were matched by the formal ambiance. Somber staff in morning coats, men in black tie, and women in fluffy cocktail dresses decorated with jewelry that sparkled in the dim light. A small diamond tiara was likely worth more than our entire life savings. As we were escorted to our table, the other guests scrutinized us, sniffed, and turned away. In our informal, wrinkled travel clothes, they had pegged us as Americans and most definitely not royal.
Happily, the maître d’, overlooking our commoner status, brought a bottle of vintage champagne and patiently explained the menu; a traditional continental mix with some British game, quail, and rabbit thrown in.
“To start, the foie gras,” he suggested. “With fig jam and toasts. And another glass of champagne.”
Of course, we nodded. Can’t have too much champagne. And then?
The Boeuf Wellington. Perhaps a salad before the cheese. And the piece de la resistance, the Souffle Almondine. The sommelier would stop by shortly to recommend appropriate wines.
Twenty minutes later, already on our second glass of champagne, we were stuffing ourselves with foie gras on tiny toasts cut like little playing cards. The fig jam was in an adorable mini jam pot, like a dollhouse toy. I was thinking of taking it home as a souvenir. At these prices, it seemed only fair to leave with something other than the five pounds I needed to lose.
“This meal may cost as much as the entire trip,” I said. Just the tiniest bit of buyer’s remorse setting in. “We may need to cut back to one meal a day when we get home.”
“Relax. It’s once in a lifetime.” Michael burped.
The foie gras plates were cleared and replaced by a delicate silver basket of warm rolls accompanied by chilled butter slices shaped like oak leaves. These, with preliminary sips of the Bordeaux airing in our glasses, would keep us busy until the beef arrived. As Michael reached for his first roll, I briefly considered forgoing the bread course. Then, just as quickly, I reconsidered, ate one roll, and put two on my bread plate for safekeeping.
Halfway through my second roll, I saw the maître d’ seating two people at the next table; a fortyish man in black tie and shiny black shoes followed by a very tall, very big, very bald man in a black suit, black shirt, and black tie. I smiled to greet them, but no one smiled back.
The maître d' snapped his fingers, the waiter's cue to place a bottle of scotch and a highball glass in front of Mr. Black Tie, who examined the bottle and nodded. The maître d' poured a generous glass and returned to the reception area. Immediately, the bald guy pulled a cigar from his jacket pocket. He unwrapped it, clipped off the end, lit it, and handed it to Mr. Black Tie, who took a long, deep puff. Thick, black cigar smoke drifted over our table. My eyes started to water.
“Michael, would you ask him to put that out, please?’
Michael leaned over and touched Mr. Black Tie's arm. The bald guy immediately stood up and faced Michael down.
Michael swallowed hard and smiled. “Would you mind?” he asked, addressing Mr. Black Tie directly. “Putting that out while we have our dinner?”
Mr. Black Tie shook his head. Mr. Big looked down at Michael. “Sod off,” he said in a deep voice with a distinctively Cockney accent.
I decided to use my feminine wiles.
“I would really appreciate it,” I batted my somewhat woozy eyelids. "I have asthma, and it's become difficult to breathe." I figured at these prices, a little white lie never hurt.
Mr. Black Tie shook his head and took another puff. The bald guy sat down, keeping his eyes on us. Michael and I considered our options. This was not a sustainable situation. A discussion with the maître d’ was required. Michael called him over.
“I wonder if you could help us?” Michael asked, keeping his voice just low enough to pretend this was a private conversation. “Would you ask the gentlemen to put out his cigar?”
"I'm sorry, Sir, but cigar smoking is allowed. Only cigarettes are prohibited."
"Cigars? Not cigarettes?”
“I’m afraid so, Sir. Terribly sorry, Sir. But there is nothing I can do, Sir.”
“Well then,” Michael said. “We insist that you move our table. It is impossible to enjoy dinner with this smoke."
“Oh dear, I’m afraid that all of our tables are booked, Sir.”
“All of them?”
“I’m afraid so, Sir. But let me see what I can do.” He walked away, frowning and rubbing his hands behind his back.
I noticed that our fellow diners were pointing at us and whispering. No one seemed concerned about the cigar smoke, only that the boorish, poorly dressed American couple had violated a critical British norm; no matter what happens, stay calm and carry on.
The conversation in the room died down as three men walked across the dining room in our direction. Two were wearing uniforms.
“Oh, my God, Michael.” I grabbed his arm and prepared to flee. “Are they going to arrest us?”
“Sit down,” he said. “Let me handle this.”
As the men got closer, I recognized the Hotel Manager, looking very stern, and two uniformed bellmen.
“Would you mind standing, Sir? Madame?” The Hotel Manager asked.
We stood up in front of our chairs as the Hotel Manager snapped his fingers sharply. This was the bellmen's signal to throw the tablecloth edges over our dishes and glasses.
"What is happening?" I whispered. "What are they doing?"
"I have no idea," Michael said as we watched the bellmen carry our table to a corner on the other side of the dining room, put it down carefully, roll back the tablecloth and check the glasses and dishes. Then they walked back to where Michael and I were now standing in front of an empty space.
"Please, follow me," the Hotel Manager said, leading us down the narrow aisle, followed by the two bellmen carrying our chairs.
The other diners were silent, all eyes on our little caravan. I kept my head high, trying to maintain some semblance of dignity. When we arrived at our new corner address, the bellmen set our chairs in place and stepped back. We sat down and looked at the table setting in awe. Everything was intact. Not a single utensil, crumb, or drop of wine had moved.
“We hope your move was satisfactory,” the Hotel Manager said. "Please accept a glass of our best port to make up for this inconvenience."
“Thank you," Michael said, "For moving our table.”
The Hotel Manager and two bellmen walked out of the dining room. Our fellow diners went back to their food and conversations. Mr. Black Tie was still puffing on the other side of the room. The stoic diners in his smoke-filled section were calmly eating and talking. No one seemed distracted or concerned about the thickening black haze floating over their food. I now understood why the British won the war.
Our new best friend, the maître d., approached our table with a smile. He set a fresh basket of rolls and butter on the table and refreshed our wine glasses.
“Thank you so much,” I said. “That was bloody brilliant.” I was pleased that I had started to sound quite British.
"I propose a toast," Michael lifted his glass of Bordeaux. "To our successful London shopping trip and…."
I picked up where he left off. “A very moving experience.”
About the Author
Lou-Ellen Barkan lives close to family and friends in New York City. Her most recent gig, writing television comedy, follows earlier careers on Wall Street, in New York City government, and as the CEO of a not-for-profit. While she is waiting for the world to return to normal, she writes for pleasure, her own, and, hopefully, for others.