Ward’s World: Encounter with a not-so-dumb waiter – by John Ward

John Ward.
John Ward.
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The simple enough joy of eating out – and by this I don’t mean hanging about around the fish and chip shop – as in the now-looked-upon gastronomical delight that is going into an establishment to sit down and be waited upon and eat something that either you or the other half has not had to slave over a digital device or perhaps the humble gas or electric oven to prepare, and perhaps have a sip or two of the house wine, and afterwards letting out a rather loud burp and commenting: “That wasn’t half bad, but they don’t fry their chips like you do, love.”

I remember one incident where the comment passed to the waiter by the couple seated at an adjacent table was: “That was a belter ally-la-cart menu, so give our condiments to the chief for us can you, Squire?” although I am pretty sure as he walked away I heard the waiter mumble under his breath “just the salt and pepper?” ...

Something shuffled towards us in a black suit and bow tie, with a napkin over his left arm, looking every minute of 137 years old

Oh, how we miss the lesser-spotted intellectual, imported from its natural habitat, as in Sid’s Café (please leave boots, waders, ponies or ferrets outside as Doris only cleans here on a Tuesday until her back is better).

The best effort so far among contenders for the Worst Diner of the Decade is one knuckle-dragger. Never mind the meal, he sat and started chewing the round, coiled raffia coaster, thinking possibly it was some form of biscuit, and after a few attempted munches, said to his concubine: “These ain’t half chewy.” And the response? “Don’t do that! – you’ll spoil your main meal, stupid.”

There have been, and still are for that matter, moments when I feel I am taking part in some bizarre hidden TV camera show, and all these folk have been sent to test my reactions, not to mention sanity.

Some years ago when the annual Motor Show was still held in Earls Court, as in the London one, friend Mike and myself wanted something to eat after the long haul around numerous stands.

The catering prices there seemed to point out that it would be cheaper to buy a new car off a display, as opposed to a pack of sandwiches and a drink, so we left and wandered into town. We came across a delightful little restaurant that looked about right to us – read as in cheap.

We went in with no customers in sight, plus, not a creature stirred, although he could have been out the back using a whisk instead. It had a certain ambience, or the aroma could have been the after-effects of the damp being sorted out, plus what is termed as “romantic lighting”, as in candles smouldering away – either that or they had had the electric cut off.

Hopefully the gas was still on, oven-wise, plus it was all very bijou. Or to put another way, the wallpaper had had a disagreement with the wall and decided to leave in various sections, and it was only the Sellotape joins giving the game away, but if they served hot food and something to sloop, this would do, as we’d had quite a walk to find something.

We found a table that didn’t wobble and sat down to study a menu each, and before you could whistle the love theme from the 1812 Overture, something shuffled towards us in a black suit and bow tie, with a napkin over his left arm, looking every minute of being a mere 137 years old. In broken English, he spoke: “You raa vont to ouedour sumsink?” We looked at each other, replied that we were still looking and, undeterred as he may have had a low pain threshold, he just stood there. We mumbled to each other, and then I spoke to Speed first.

I asked for a small steak, well done as in next step to cremation, with various bits and bobs slung on the plate as the cook/chef/skilled miracle worker felt appropriate. Then Mike ordered his, with his preferences as to how the animal (hopefully deceased) was prepared and presented, etc, and then Speed asked: “You lick sumsink to derlink?”

We both opted for a low fat, semi-skimmed, glass of water each. He then did a passable three point turn and summoned up the energy to shuffle over to what we thought was a wooden panel set in the wall. It was a “dumbwaiter” serving hatch that we had both seen in assorted films, but had never seen in real life before, so obviously we weren’t getting out as much as we should be doing.

The next piece was a classic as, do bear in mind, we had spent the best part of five minutes or so translating/explaining to Speed our primitive desires as to what we wanted food-wise, how it should be cooked, etc.

He opened the panel onto the dark shaft that was the communication side of the dumbwaiter, and gave the following, precise instructions to whoever was at the reception end. He shouted: “Two-a da mixers!”

We stared at each other on seeing/hearing this phenomenon as Speed closed the panel and shuffled back to the shadows, muttering as he passed us: “You-a not-ta wait-a longa.”

Reassuring or worrying, we knew not.

Speed slowly went across the near-silent room (all that could be heard was the wicks burning on the candles) and he sort of leaned against the far wall with the still-attached wallpaper, and he never moved until a bell rang, whereupon he shuffled towards the dumbwaiter again, and out on a tray came our meals.

Amazingly, although they were both ordered to be cooked to different requirements, and he had only uttered about two words of command or inducement, they were cooked as required! We were stunned.

Fluke or what, we never asked, but the meals were brilliant. After eating our way through this quite unexpected response meal-wise, Speed shuffled over to our table once more.

He looked straight ahead of him – fog expected maybe? – and asked: “You-a wanta dar desert maybaa?”

I was tempted to ask what he had in stock, such as Sahara, Gobi or Kalahari, but we declined, drank our water and afterwards followed Speed to the till – we all three did a sort of demented soft shoe shuffle together towards it. We paid and left as Speed sort of faded back into the rear of the restaurant.

I went back a few years later and, for old time’s sake, I ventured round to the restaurant – but, sadly, it was now a dress shop. I often wonder what sort of sand the desert may have been like.