Battle of the sexes: Do men or women make the better dining companion?

Stale stereotypes – or the reality of eating out with the opposite sex? Our restaurant critics Tracey MacLeod and John Walsh compare notes.
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Tracey MacLeod

I'm sitting opposite a man in a restaurant. We both know what we're there for – and it isn't the food. The manager is hovering, waiting to take our order. My companion scans the menu and decides instantly. "I'd like the sirloin on the bone," he announces crisply. "Medium rare, sir?" "No, rare. I want to see blood! And can you find out what happened to that glass of wine I ordered?" Shrinking in the booth, I mumble something about tuna carpaccio and maybe a glass of tap water?

So much for the photo-shoot for this article. Obviously it wasn't a very representative experience – two restaurant critics, meeting for a pretend lunch in an empty restaurant. But the encounter did encapsulate some kind of truth about how men and women behave differently in restaurants. Of the two of us, John (Walsh) was infinitely more confident and commanding. He knew what he wanted, and he wanted it more quickly than the waiter was able to bring it. I was much more concerned with not making a fuss, and looking nice.

Mind you, if actual eating had been involved, it would have been a different story. When it comes to dining out, I'm not a typical woman. I'm a restaurant critic – normal gender behaviour codes do not apply. I choose the restaurant. I book the table. If it's a review, I tell my companions what to order, then force them to let me taste it. I eat offal. I ask for the wine list. I ask questions. I eat pudding. I ask for the bill – and usually, I pay it. In restaurant terms I am, essentially, a bloke.

But for the purposes of this piece, I have been trying to remember what it was like in the old days. Back when I was still a girl, at least in restaurant terms. When going out to eat involved an anxious set of preparatory calculations. Would it be "posh"? And if so, did I have something posh enough to wear? Would I be able to afford to pay my half of the bill? (For younger readers, there used to be this thing called feminism, which meant that women with jobs assumed they would pay their own way. No? Ask your mum.) And if the chap refused to let me go halves, would there be... post-dinner expectations?

Now that restaurant-going has become casual and apparently without gender bias, it's hard to recall just how fraught with tension a dinner-date could be for a young woman. As someone whose idea of fine-dining was whitebait and rump steak in the Berni Inn, arriving in London during the first restaurant revolution of the 1980s involved a steep learning curve. French and Italian menus had to be navigated solo; to ask questions of a male companion would be to expose oneself as, at best, a provincial numpty, at worst, a ditzy pushover.

Gradually, I mastered the basics. But as a female diner, there were still pitfalls. A prospective boyfriend once took me to the infinitely grand restaurant at Les Ambassadeurs club, where lady guests were given menus without prices. Clueless, but desperate not to appear high-maintenance, I frantically tried to calculate whether sweetbreads were cheaper than langoustines, and spurned anything involving caviar or lobster (not that easy to do as I recall).

Alarmingly, the price-less ladies' menu still exists in London. Le Gavroche, the venerable and venerated restaurant run by Michel Roux Jr, still maintains this dubious tradition. If the woman has booked the table, it's different, although I recall the irritation of a friend of mine, a high-powered BBC current affairs presenter, whose attempt to treat her husband to a special birthday dinner at La Tante Claire was foiled at every turn. Even though she'd made the booking, the staff treated her as the little lady guest. She got the menu with no prices. He got the wine to taste. She requested the bill. He was given it to pay. As they were leaving, the manager asked if she'd enjoyed her meal. It was lovely, she said, but as she was paying for her husband, it would have been nice if they'd treated her as the host. The manager's face broke into an incredulous smile, and he turned to my friend's husband. "Lucky fella!" he breathed.

That's an extreme case. Most restaurants are now relatively gender-neutral. They don't automatically seat the lady on the banquette looking out over the room. Or give two women eating together (or – horror! – the lone female diner) the worst table in the room. Some small chivalries persist. Women still tend to be served first, but that's fine – waiters are far more likely to offend by not doing that. But it rankles when front of house staff refuse to accept a woman as the main point of contact in a mixed group. I've lost count of the number of times I've ordered wine which has then been brought to a male companion to taste. Same with the bill. And quite regularly, waiters have assumed, if I'm dining with a man, that the fish must be for me, and the steak and ale pudding for him.

The old preconception that women tend to order more lightly and eat and drink less is challenged by Will Beckett, co-owner of the Spitalfields' steakhouse Hawksmoor, who has just opened a second restaurant in Covent Garden. "Our female customers don't tend to order that differently from men. We get tiny women of five foot two ordering 1.2kg steaks. They're not all eating fish. We put bone marrow on our menu, thinking it would be picked up by a small foodie crowd. But everyone likes it, men and women – we're selling much more than we expected."

That may be so, but I don't know many women, outside of hardcore foodie circles, who relish eating offal. Maybe because they're keen to appear "nice", women are less likely to order foie gras or veal, and the appearance of rabbit on a menu will inevitably provoke some anguished anecdote about how they couldn't possibly eat it, because they used to have a pet bunny...

Sorry, don't know what came over me there; I seem to be turning into Jeremy Clarkson. At the risk of generalising, men and women do want slightly different things from dining out. Men are more likely to see the experience as a way of showing off; whether by getting into the latest hot restaurant, scoring the best table, getting treated as a valued regular, or by slapping down the old credit card and paying for everyone. Women, by contrast, want to feel comfortable and relaxed when they eat out. They want to eat gorgeous food – preferably of the kind they could never have cooked themselves. And if they're in a romantic situation with a man, they want to look good – low, non-directional lighting is probably the most important element of good restaurant design.

Fortunately, the ambience is more sympathetic for women diners these days, the whole experience less fraught. But there are still a few simple rules that men can follow when dining out with women, and these I pass on to you objectively, speaking as a bloke myself.

On arriving, pick up your napkin immediately, unfurl it, and spread it over your own lap. Don't let the waiter do it for you. Women want to dine with Don Draper, not a giant toddler. Similarly, never, ever tuck your napkin into your shirt collar.

On no accounts put your mobile phone on the table at the beginning of the meal. And certainly not your laptop. Your female guest must feel like the apple of your eye, not the warm-up for your Apple.

When tasting wine, do not turn it into a performance. You are not auditioning as a judge on Masterchef.

If your female companion offers to split the bill, or pay for you, let her. Not every woman fantasises about being Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman.

And whatever else you do, never start a meal by announcing "I want to see blood".

John Walsh

It used to be so simple. You pushed the door open for your heftily-perfumed lady companion, and she would scan the restaurant's gleaming silver and blinding napery with a little cry of rapture, her hand at her lips. "Oh John," she would say, "It's so sophisticated." The fawning maître d' would express his gratitude at my condescension in gracing his humble brasserie once more, sentiments I would wave away like summer midges, before ordering the usual dry martini, muddled with olive juice. Because the lady usually had no opinion, preference or indeed clue about aperitifs, I'd recommend a Campari and soda because it was pink and intoxicating and thus matched her lips.

Bewildered by my debonair manner and suave compliments, the lady would hide her confusion by opening the menu. Her mother told her, long ago, to order the second most expensive dish therein, and never order soup in case it ran down her chin (or, horrors, dripped off the spoon into her cleavage). She would ask you to explain foreign words – timbale, brandade, tagliatelle, zabaglione – a chore one accomplished with public-school confidence, while choosing the wine from the sommelier in perfectly-accented Provençal French.

The lady would always have something vegetal for a starter ("...if that's all right with you...") so it wouldn't fill up her delicate, purse-sized tummy too soon. A quail's egg with salad. Sliced tomato with lamb's lettuce. Globe artichoke. Not asparagus, because the gentleman would know that her pee would smell funny later on, and such knowledge was disgustingly intimate. For the main course, she'd have something white. Fish for preference, although a supreme of chicken (in a very white sauce) was acceptable. Beef was for trenchermen and cannibals. Venison, or any game dish, was out because it would probably be smelly after being hung for days. Lamb was for Sunday lunch and it was heresy to eat it any other time. Pork regrettably came from pigs and gave you an upset tummy unless cooked till burnt. It was best to stick to plaice, or lobster (only the white bits) or some tasteless turkey. Vegetables, though non-white, were acceptable: peas, leeks, broad beans, honest market-garden stuff. Potatoes were OK for the ladies, either puréed (not mashed) or arrayed à la Dauphinoise. Turnips, swedes and parsnips were unforgivably common.

Of course, ladies never spoke directly to the waiter. It would be like a Duchess addressing the skivvy from a household other than her own. Instead, she indicated her menu choices to her gentleman companion in a shy, apologetic voice, and he then boldly addressed the proletarian servant on behalf of both of them.

Ladies did not do puddings. Too vulgar. Too filling. Too whiff-of-the-nursery. No lady companion would go near sticky toffee or chocolate fondant. A moment on the lips, a lifetime on the hips. Brandy snaps were an alarming shape, as if they'd been wrapped around something horrid. Ladies ordered a coffee and nibbled a petit four. A more worldly woman might request a rum baba with a slug of real rum over it, to show that she was a good sort, provided the gentleman didn't Get Any Ideas in the taxi afterwards...

OK, this was never my experience of dining out, but it was the world I grew up in, when pre-war rules of dining etiquette still applied, well into the 1960s, and people could still be mortified by using the wrong fork or drinking from the fingerbowl. Now, thank God, all the nonsensical deference of women to men in restaurants has gone. Ladies dress as they please, know more than men about what foreign words mean, speak directly to (and indeed, flirt directly with) the waiter and can eat what they damn well want. We're all equals at the 21st-century swill-bucket, trough and nosebag. But there are still some differences between the sexes when it comes to choosing and eating food in a restaurant.

1) In years of reviewing meals, I have never known a woman order soup. Because it's too liquid? Because it's too messy? Because it'll give them wind? What?

2) Women seldom order pâté either. Or terrines, or rillettes. Just too earthy. And foie gras is a complete no-no. Even its presence on a menu can make them shudder with vestigial sympathy for force-fed Strasbourg geese.

3) Ladies love scallops. It's like eating fat jewellery. And though it's shellfish, it seldom smells of the briny. They may hold back, however, if it's served with black pudding. Ladies also like grilled calamari, but steer clear of octopus, whose gross tentacularity may remind them of over-insistent boyfriends in the past.

4) Other lady favourites are Parma ham with roast figs, quail's eggs with Hollandaise, grilled sardines and carpaccio of absolutely anything. Carpaccio, whether of beef or tuna, is the gastronomic equivalent of size zero: highly desirable, despite being hardly there at all.

5) Salads. Only women say, "I'm looking to see if they have any interesting salads". Men know that the only interesting salad is the Niçoise, because it has anchovy, olives and hard-boiled egg in it.

6) But then, the female vocabulary of appreciation is different from the male. Only girls say, "Mmm. Very light and fresh-tasting". Other lady-diner epithets are "succulent", "palate-cleansing" and "it's a mixture of spring and autumn...".

7) I cannot count the number of times a lady companion has ordered fish as a healthy-option main course, eaten it, then regretted she hadn't been more adventurous. Guilt is a strong emotion in many female diners. My daughter Sophie, a deranged steak enthusiast, says she never orders steak in a restaurant "because it feels wrong – but I always feel jealous of steak eaters at the table. I always try to have something new and unusual, even though all I want, steak apart, is chicken and chips".

8) Women tend to order according to how well they know their companion. They never (I'm informed) order noodles or burgers on an early date. If lunching with other women, they will often go for the two-starters-no-main-course option, as a passive-aggressive statement of health and virtue. Men never do this.

9) Some women dislike the experience of "food envy" and, consequently, order the same as their companion. Men tend to feel it's a sign of unadventurousness for both of you to eat the same dish.

10) Far more women now eat puddings – the course which often demonstrates a restaurant's true creativity – than ever before (in posh circles anyway). But through some vestigial notions of femininity, they're more likely to decline, then ask for "a spoonful" of the gentleman's crème brûlée or almond tart.

These reflections are based on personal observation and may not, of course, hold true outside the environs of the M25. But, as far as restaurant culture goes, we've come a long way from the days when women weren't expected to know about, or indeed enjoy, fancy cuisine. You can still find restaurants where a group of women diners who ask for a wine list will be told, "It's quite complicated..." by a snotty sommelier. But he'll probably be rewarded, these days, by one woman saying, "Do you find this complicated?" and jabbing him in the eyes with two elegant fingers. Female deference in the salle à manger has gone, thank God. Male condescension may eventually follow. In the meantime, both sexes can now gorge on charred beef, spatchcocked chicken, pork belly, duck confit and jugged hare in a way that ladies didn't use to. In the 2010s, girls don't just wanna have funghi.

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