True Gripes: Space invaders: Squeezing in spoils eating out

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The Independent Online
When I moved to London from Canada 23 years ago I was surprised by how small in stature the English are in comparison with the average North American. Then I was taken out to lunch and I realised that you English have all been genetically engineered to fit into London restaurants.

You know the type I mean. Once through the door you feel like Gulliver entering the Land of the Lilliputs. The table you and your guest are led to is the size of a small tea tray. The waiter proffers you a chair similar in size to the dear little nursery one you remember from childhood.

Every available space is crammed with these children's table and chair sets. Tables are jammed against tables. The passageway between rows of tables is so narrow that your head seems to be a magnet attracting the shoulder bags and elbows of every passer-by.

More embarrassing, when the man sitting behind you wants to leave, no matter how hard you strive to shove yourself and your chair in against your table to give him a little room, somehow his backside ends up pressed against the back of your neck as he struggles to squeeze through the space.

Everything in these Lilliputian restaurants seems to be in miniature - tiny tables, tiny chairs, tiny portions of food, tiny coffee cups, tiny carafes of wine, tiny white, hexagonal plates. Even the waiters are almost as small as jockeys? But then they have to be. The only thing that's full sized in London restaurants is the bill.

Over the years I have become adept at eating without the plate or the wine glass ending up in my lap. However, I still haven't mastered the art of carrying on a private conversation while sitting cheek by jowl with half a dozen other people all trying to do the same. The knack, I'm told, is to never, ever make eye contact.

And then there is that incredibly embarrassing moment when your guest goes off to the loo and you are left alone to sip wine and pretend you're not really listening to the woman sitting three inches from you telling her friend all the gory details of her divorce.

Perhaps what exasperates me most is that Londoners seem willing to pay to play the sardine. Even more maddening, when I complain they make excuses for restaurateurs. This is London, they say, not the wide open spaces of Canada. Rates and rents are high. To make a reasonable profit restaurateurs must cram in as many as possible. Nothing can be done, they sigh wearily. On the contrary. I recently found out that the Licensing Act says every customer must be given one square metre of the available floor space.

I can't recall the last time I ate in a restaurant where two people sitting at a table took up 2 square meters.

But now I know I shall be taking my tape measure to lunch.