Irritations Of Modern Life 26. Trendy Restaurants

REMEMBER THOSE days when you went to a restaurant for a chat, a drink and a decent bit of wholesome, unpretentious grub? Going out for a meal used to be one of those things you just did, an act that was almost rustic in its simplicity.

That, of course, was before the hordes of superchefs and foodie entrepreneurs swept in, demanding culinary "event" temples grandiose enough to match their egos, and the science of getting a table began to involve strategies as fiendishly tortuous as anything a tinpot Latin American dictator could devise (which, come to think of it, could explain a certain general's fondness for dining at the River Cafe in London).

First, you have to make your booking. This usually involves phoning months ahead to stand any chance of gaining admittance to the most feverishly modish venues (which will undoubtedly be unfashionable by the time you get beyond their portals). You will then be held in a queue, fuming impotently at a Schubert string quartet while the phone operator counts down the requisite three-and-a-half minutes before deigning to take the call, then gleefully informing you either that the establishment is solidly booked until 2003 (the preferred option), or that they could possibly squeeze you in on the preferred date as long as you arrive at 6.32pm precisely and leave no later than 7.45pm. By this time the average caller is so psychologically broken that unbidden tears of gratitude start to flow.

Unfortunately, however, the humiliation is only just beginning. When you arrive at your gastrodrome of choice you have to negotiate armies of hostile bouncers (the more sadistic of whom may insist on random internal examinations), before being thrust into a cavernous hangar where you're met by an exquisitely disdainful maitre d' who's always taller/ thinner/ better dressed than you. The journey to your table means running the gauntlet of swearing, sweating sous-chefs glowering from the voguish visible kitchen and may remind you of the scene where Jodie Foster slinks past serial killers' cells in The Silence of the Lambs.

When you arrive at your table (under a stairwell, in the teeth of a howling gale between the fire exit and the gents' loo), you embark on the 45-minute wait for your food with only caraway-seeded rosemary and nutmeg bread rolls for sustenance.

Naturally, the food itself comes a long way down the food chain of the dining experience.

The staple "Modern British" fare of these establishments invariably features a salmon fishcake (can anyone remember what we used to eat before the salmon fishcake was thrust upon us?) with accompaniments whose innovativeness is in direct inverse proportion to their consumability (beds of griddled celeriac, litchi mash, lard shavings).

Not that you'll have a chance to finish it - at the stroke of 7.44pm, those waiters swoop down and frogmarch you out, pausing only for you to stop at the gift shop to buy the souvenir matchbook/ ashtray/ mug tree of your time spent at Marco Pierre White's or Sir Terence Conran's pleasure. This relic, the proof that you were there, is the gastronomic equivalent of the U2 Wembley '98 T-shirt, confirming that restaurants really are the new rock'n'roll.

The more faint-hearted among us can only plead indigestion, and join the legions of gastronomic refuseniks (also known as the Disciples of Delia) who stubbornly insist that Staying In is the new Going Out.