TWICE a week, on Friday and Saturday nights, the Dorchester Hotel hosts a dinner- dance - which seems a marvellous idea. London has got so grungy these days, there is not nearly enough dancing in long silver gowns between courses. The big hotels are deliciously glamorous, and it is a lovely, generous thing that absolutely anyone is allowed in to meet their friends among pillars, mirrors and flower arrangements the size of cows if they fancy a change from bare floorboards and bizarre bottles of Belgian beer.
The Dorchester promised well, with its gleaming marbled foyer and even an entire rugby team cutely arranged on the sofas in their blazers and shiny buttons. But as we turned into the Terrace Restaurant and heard the swish of a little brush on a drum, we began to suspect what it was going to be like: doo shwush shwush, du-doo schwush schwush, "Yunforgeddable... asss huh whayouare..."
Dinner-dances evoke a whole world of Mayor's balls, Parent-Teacher Association dos and grown-ups: with which the band was entirely in keeping. The electric guitarist, with his beard and wire spectacles, seemed wholly detached from the performance, as if he was really paying careful attention to an engineering lecture, while the lead singer was grasping at the air and screwing up his face singing, "If aah can make it there, then aaah - shwush - can make it there..."
The Terrace Restaurant is a beautiful room, with a pineapple, palm-tree theme, mirrors, candles and little lights under lampshades on the tables. At almost nine it was starting to fill up though the dance floor was still empty. My date ordered a whisky and a glass of water to steady his nerves, and I rakishly joined him with a Gin Martini. The drinks came quickly enough except that there was no sign of the water. We asked for it again, but two piping hot face flannels arrived instead, smelling faintly of chlorine. "Ah, an end to slippy nose misery," enthused my friend, giving his face a thorough scrub under his glasses, but I was slightly hurt by the face cloth since I had only just had a bath.
The clientele was an even mix of wealthy looking older couples, with the men in grey suits and the ladies in floppy two-pieces, and young merchant bankery types. One of the older couples took to the floor, charming us with that old-fashioned steppy, turny dancing with 30 years worth of co- ordination under their belts. It seems a shame that people don't know how to do that any more, we agreed - it being so understatedly sexy and flirtatious.
We turned with an inadequate sigh to the set menu, offering three courses for £38 and four for £42. Over-imaginative items were lurking everywhere: fillet of brill with cider and cinnamon sauce, parfait of chicken liver and onion and fig compte, and cream of leek soup flavoured with curry.
This always seems to happen in hotels just when, if you are travelling rather than dinner- dancing, you are most in need of comfortingly sane food. It is as if the chefs try to find the most certifiable possible thing they can put in a bowl of soup or with a piece of fish to make it seem luxurious: cod with rum and coke, perhaps, or tomato soup with nasturtiums.
In spite of the multitudinous waiters it seemed a long time before any food arrived. No doubt they were giving us chance to build up an appetite by sashaying round to "Love is sssin the air schwush, dur dur dur, dur dur dur." Eventually the starters came. Mine was the leek soup, which was very good without actually being nice. A good cream of leek soup has no need for bits of smoked haddock and curry in it. My companion's parfait of chicken liver, though, was a deliciously, smoothly, fruitily, tasty thing. He could have sworn the exotic fig and onion compte was his mum's chutney - by no means a criticism.
There were several couples on the dance floor now, and we were just building ourselves up to join them when lo and behold our main courses arrived and having briefly flirted with the idea of making a couple of sandwiches to dance with, we decided to stay put. My friend had chosen medallions of veal with a ragot of asparagus and morel mushrooms, and had a miniature crise when it arrived, imagining the poor little calf perhaps at Portsmouth harbour, "Where is my mummy? Where is my daddy?" He recovered quickly and declared his veal and crisps (for thus it was served) splendid.
I had gone for the brill and cinnamon concoction, which again was very expert (though the sauce was just starting to wrinkle under a skin in one corner), but preposterously rich. I could just about have coped with the idiosyncrasy of the fish, cider and cinnamon combination had I not chosen as dessert an over-large circle of not especially nice pastry with soggy apple topped with an oval scoop of lavender ice-cream. Whatever next? My friend declared the concept "ghastly beyond endurance". It was like eating a bar of Bromley soap.
By this time the dancing was hotting up. It was not ballroom dancing but jiggy dancing - verging on the reckless after all that lavender and haddock. One of the merchant banker women was so carried away that she clearly thought she was a Spanish or possibly Bolivian femme fatale and was staring murderously over her shoulder tossing her hair and Herms scarf with furious passion while skipping from one patent-pumped foot to the other.
We were just about to go for it too, definitely, on the next record when a tuxedoed waiter was suddenly upon us. "Surpri-ise," he cooed in a sing- song."You thought there weren't any surprises in the world any more, didn't you?" He then produced the fruit and sweet titbits it said we were going to get on the menu. It was one of the least surprising surprises we'd ever had. We both agreed, too, that though shamed by our failure to dance, we'd had an amusing time. The whole thing wasn't really our cup of tea, but if you were a merchant banker or a older couple who liked steppy-turny dancing, you could have a lovely night out as long as you were very rich.
We were absolutely, definitely going to dance this time when the bill arrived, which turned out to be the really surprising surprise. In the excitement we had ordered a Rmy Martin and a Janneau Armagnac. The Armag- nac cost £12. Twelve pounds. Our drinks, with £33 for bottle of fairly ordinary Pouilly Fuiss, had added £66.50 to the bill. Now that was when I needed the face flannel.