Ask me about the most important moments in my life, and I will tell you what we ate. For every low I can recall a soul-soothing dish, and it doesn’t have to be fancy. Remove cardboard sleeve, pierce film lid, and forget about everything might be the easiest first three steps towards mending a broken heart.
When memories of nights laughed away with best friends in beloved restaurants are sparked, the scent of steak charring on a grill tends to drift through my mind.
The first time I went on a date to a posh restaurant was actually by accident. I was 22 and had recently starting going out with someone. One Friday after work we met up at a pub in Notting Hill with the vague intention of finding somewhere cheap for dinner later. We were at that stage where you’re past the uncertainty of whether or not you’re into each other, while still being high on each other’s existence.
Several drinks in, at around 9pm, we absent-mindedly wandered towards Westbourne Grove, not a place I would recommend for a bargain dinner, and ended up in one of those fancy restaurants masquerading as a pub.
You’ll know when you’re in one because despite the presence of real-ale pumps, chalkboard menus, and a plate of pork pies on the bar, you won’t be allowed to sit at a table if all you want is a pint and some chips. Said tables will be set with heavy cutlery and more than one kind of wine glass, and those pork pies will cost you something north of a fiver.
Resigned to our fate, and too giddy and drunk to care, we decided eat there anyway and deal with the consequences later. As we were being seated, I spotted BBC Sport veteran Des Lynam across the dining room, enjoying post-dinner digestifs with a group of respectable-looking friends. This was going to be expensive.
I say I’d only just started seeing this person but we’d actually been friends for years already. We initially approached this revised version of our relationship tentatively, wary of it not working out. I had not long broken up with someone else, and we were both so young – was this the right time to jump into something new? What would happen to our friendship if it turned out it wasn’t?
But after much discussion we’d decided to give it a go, concluding there’s never a right way or right time for these things to happen anyway. We promised that we’d at least make an effort to go for dinner and drinks rather than accidentally slip from snog to serious in 30 seconds, so while this was really more like our thousandth trip to a restaurant together, it was technically our first date.
I ordered a chicken and ham pie – the cheapest thing on the menu that didn’t sound depressing – with a side of obscenely buttery greens, and we shared dauphinoise potatoes. I can never bring myself to cook dauphinoise potatoes at home, finding the required amount of fat too obscene, but in a restaurant I’m willing to turn a blind eye for the sake of luxury.
The rich sauce in the pie and the creamy potatoes were as comforting as a warm, fuzzy blanket, but the smoky ham made it taste grown-up and expensive – not like something you’d get on pie and mash night at the local pub where we’d been flirting for months.
I remember waxing lyrical about the “deep cherry flavours” of the red wine we got with it, like simply entering a serious, adult environment and not asking for a lager had qualified me as a sommelier. In all likelihood I’d read the description on the side of the bottle.
Walking to the tube station afterwards, I began to feel queasy, as is usually the case if you throw a load of rich food into a stomach full of booze. But I was determined not to ruin the evening’s romantic vibe by heaving behind a parked car and more importantly I didn’t want to splatter £30 worth of food – a lot to me at the time – all over the pavement. It took a lot of deep breathing, swallowing, and praying for the nausea to pass, but thankfully, I managed to hold it in.
The next day we sat in the park finishing off half a bottle of last night’s wine that we’d been too drunk to drink, and too poor to consider just leaving. It didn’t matter that we were hungover or that sitting outside on a drizzly, grey October afternoon is probably not the best way to enjoy good wine. Life felt sweet.
Just under five years later, we split up.
When a relationship has simply run its course, rather than ended as a result of an event or betrayal, it can be hard to know where the full stop goes. For months we dragged out conversations about what we could change or things that might make each other happier, sounding like we might have solutions when we were actually reading our relationship the last rites.
One Saturday, just as we were clearing away plates from a dinner of defrosted stew that wasn’t even that great the first time, a mutual friend texted asking if we wanted to come to a last-minute club night her boyfriend was DJing somewhere in east London.
“Let’s go,” I said, “maybe dancing will be fun,” discounting the fact that I dislike dancing almost as much as I hate leaving my southeast London postcode after 9pm. In actual fact it ended up being cathartic to escape our flat and think about nothing more than moving in time with the pulsating beat of whatever kind of electronic music was played.
When we left around 3:30am we decided to hold out for the first train home at around 6am rather than splurge £40 on taxi fare, killing the time by atoning for our sorry dinner with something better to eat.
We ended up at a Turkish place called Sömine that’s open 24-7, and serves only soup in the small hours. I can’t say I’d recommend crying in a café in Dalston in the middle of the night, but I do highly recommend their soup. It’s light like a broth, but has lentils, tomatoes, and juicy chunks of chicken: just the kind of hearty fare you need to see you through when you’re waiting for the sun to come up.
I floated chunks of the puffy white bread it comes with in mine, watching them become swollen and heavy as they soaked up the soup. Under bright neon lights, in the quiet of the restaurant, we could no longer hide the cracks our relationship had become riddled with. Tears fell into the bowl like rain splashing a puddle. Could we fix this? Did we even want to? Was this it?
After finally catching a train home, we walked up the hill to our flat in weary silence, still not quite ready to say the answers out loud.
For weeks after that, we continued to insist to ourselves that all couples go through rough patches, convinced that if we just took a little bit of time doing things separately to work out what we each wanted, everything would probably be fine.
What we wanted, we finally admitted, was to spend all of our time separately.
Neither of us could face the dismantling discussion at home, which would only end when, sad and exhausted, one of us would tearfully fall asleep. When we drew a line under “us”, we needed not to be in a room filled with reminders of everything that once meant – a postcard bearing an in-joke pinned to the kitchen wall, a rolled-up menu saved from a surprise birthday meal poking out of a drawer – so we decided to go out for dinner to plan our next moves.
Choosing a restaurant to mark the demise of something you once thought might have been forever, is, as you can imagine, tricky. Pick an old favourite place and good memories will make the process all the more painful, let alone ruin it for the future. Go somewhere you don’t like, on the other hand, and you’ll simply invite further displeasure into an already bleak situation.
In the end we chose Dean Street Townhouse in Soho, which has a chic, brasserie-style dining room and is on the discreet, rather than grand, side of elegant – like an expensive black silk shirt or a light pinot noir. Neither of us had been there for dinner before, so it held no associations, nor was it somewhere either of us were likely to frequent in future.
We would have dinner, formulate a plan, and then go home together, perhaps for the final time. I arrived first and indulged in 10 solitary minutes with a glass of crisp white wine, reading the newspaper at the table for two I’d reserved, before our waiter showed my soon-to-be-ex-partner to his seat. It probably looked like we were on a date. Our last date.
The roasted cod I ordered was light and tender, and fell into delicate flakes with the slightest prod of a fork. I’ve never been able to get fish right when cooking it at home – it always ends up dry with slimy skin. But in a chef’s capable hands, it was perfect. Served with it were sweet little confit cherry tomatoes, offering a burst of intense flavor to the mild fish.
We talked about how sad the last few months had been with a glimmer of hope that it proved we were making the right decision. The four and a bit years we’d spent together had mostly been great, and we were thankful to each other for that. We could still be friends, which was far preferable to growing to resent each other by dragging something out that wasn’t meant to be.
“I had an email from the landlady earlier,” he said as coffee arrived. “We can break the lease on the flat early so long as we find someone else to move in. She said these things happen.”
It was early summer, and the golden evening light poured softly through large windows into the airy dining room, shimmering on polished cutlery and voluptuous wine glasses. I was glad we’d decided do this over dinner. It felt like we were raising a glass to the past, rather than severing ties and burying it.