Dining out

Sparked this morning by an article in the London Times sent me by my erstwhile physician, herewith a section from my historical diaries concerning different occasions of dining out.

the Neuvième restaurant at Eaton’s in Montrėal

Some of the happiest times I can remember were (not surprisingly) spent with friends. Especially if one grows up, as I did, in an environment which was isolated from immediate family; and, latterly, my life has been what many would label as that of a “single person”. Whatever the reason for, or category of, my life, friends were critical. Even as far back as my early school days in Alberta in the early 1960’s, I remember my friend, Ken Stickland, distinctly. In fact, the memory was revitalized almost twenty-five years or so later when I heard Ken giving an “opinion” on a radio programme on CBC. I went to the trouble of trying to locate him in Alberta, got a number in Edmonton, called it, connected with a woman whom I asked if she were the wife of Ken, which she said she was, and then to my entire astonishment, she told me she had heard Ken speak of me often! Within months, Ken and I reunited for dinner in Almonte, when he was visiting Ottawa on business connected with agricultural matters. Other friends, like Nick Glassow and Max Marechaux, of whom I have spoken earlier, were the authors of many a twisted trail down the garden path in my boarding school days. And the tradition continued with Michael Apigian and Jo-Anne Trudeau in undergraduate days at Glendon Hall. Most recently, with the pressures of business being what they are, and my relative isolation in Almonte, special times with friends most often happen more by design than accident. A case in point is my friendship with John Fitchett. John is a well-educated man, with a Master’s Degree in Education, and he combines his education, well-read nature and native intellect in a way which many would consider enviable. He has that ease of expression and analysis which only comes from inherent ability and a good measure of worldliness. In addition, John too favours the good life, and the two of us have dedicated a considerable amount of our spare time to devising ways of pursuing that very goal, but, thankfully, always bestowing upon our evil endeavours the mantle of intellectual propriety. So, for example, we have had a number of outings together, in cities like Ottawa, Toronto and Montreal, where we purchase advance tickets to whatever particular art show happens to be running at the local fine arts gallery. Contemporaneously, we ensure that we visit the finer troughs and oases of refreshment. Most recently, in 1999, John, Denis Arial and I booked a large suite at the former Four Season’s Hotel (now part of the Omnia International chain) on Sherbrooke Street. We visited the Neuvieme restaurant at Eaton’s (which, as the name implies, is located on the ninth floor of the old department store on St. Catharine’s Street; actually, I am sad to report that the restaurant has since been closed). The restaurant, for those who are not familiar with it, was an historical venue and was in fact only recently the subject of an in-depth journalistic review for television. It was created very much along the lines of a stately dining hall in the Titanic, being long and relatively narrow, very high ceiling, and decorated with lovely lamp fixtures and wall sconces of the era. There was an elevated area at the far end of the hall, on which is located a grand piano; and, on the day we lunched there, a very accomplished musician, whom we later met and who informed us he was a music student at McGill, was performing the finest of classical pieces as background for the clatter of silverware, chatter of the regular blue-rinse crowd and noise of waiters and platters and so on. In keeping with what was an obvious custom of the regular patrons, we enjoyed a number of martinis, before tucking into the regular fare of chicken pot pie, salmon in a cream sauce, and the like. The linen service, the excellence of the attentive staff, and the entire exuberance and abundance of the scene made for a thoroughly enjoyable luncheon.

La PRESSE, détail d’une publicité du magasin Eaton invitant le public à la grande ouverture du Restaurant du 9e Étage, publiée le 24 janvier 1931

Carmen’s Club in Toronto

I cannot, however, say that all our dining engagements have been as successful. Years ago when I attended Glendon Hall, and even before when I had been at St. Andrew’s College, I had on several occasions dined at what was then one of Toronto’s better known private dinner clubs, Carmen’s on Alexandra Street off Yonge near Carleton. Though I had heard that the Club was no longer private, when John and I made arrangements to visit Toronto for an exhibit of the Barnes collection of impressionist paintings at the Ontario Gallery of Art, I not unnaturally suggested we go to Carmen’s. I had, after all, celebrated my 21st birthday there when I was 18, and I had nothing but the fondest memories of the place, the thick smell of garlic bread, just dripping with the juices; the steaks and lobsters displayed in mahogany cabinets behind leaded windows, the quaint fireplaces in each of the various rooms, all housed in the beautifully maintained grand old Toronto home. Accordingly, I called ahead from Almonte, made the reservations by telephone, and confirmed them in writing. John and I were at the time staying at the Royal York Hotel, and in keeping with a tradition which John had established on previous outings, we enjoyed some whiskey and soda as “dressing drinks”, then headed off to Carmen’s, appetites whetted, full of anticipation. From the very moment we arrived at the restaurant, things got off to a bad start. First, when we materialized in the front hallway from the cab, there was no one there. When, finally, the hostess appeared, her unforgettable opening words were, “The name?”. This uncaring and unprofessional introduction practically put me through the roof, but rather than make a scene, we advised her of the reservation name, after which, without so much as inviting us to follow her, she headed off in what we only surmised was a direction we were to follow, which we did. There then ensued an unduly long time before we were even asked about a cocktail, and during which, being thus undistracted, I was able to observe to my horror that we were surrounded by people who were clearly not dressed for dinner as I remembered it at Carmen’s, but more for a bus tour outing to Howard Johnson’s. Even this, however, I was able to submerge, more, I am sure, because I did not want to draw John’s attention to it, though I would have been a fool to think he hadn’t noticed. Nonetheless, the evening proceeded. The next many minutes were drawn out with very slow service, but when we at last got through our hors d’oeuvres and onto our main course of filet mignon, we thought we might have some smooth sailing, but alas, such was not to be the case. When the waiter brought our bottle of wine, he dropped it onto the candlestick in the middle of the table. There was no great mess, other than the smashing of the glass candlestick, but it was disruptive. And, then, as if by sheer irony, when I looked up over John’s shoulder, I noticed a fully clothed fireman or two standing behind him. At first, I thought they had come as a result of our incident with the candlestick, but then I discovered to my complete astonishment that they were pitching about a stretcher, which they had now miraculously managed to expand in the limited space between our table and the one behind, and they appeared to be loading the lifeless body of an elderly lady onto it. She must have suffered a heart attack. It was all too much! The whole evening had acquired a none too pleasant dream-like quality, nursed along as it was by the numerous drinks John and I had consumed in the pregnant pauses between courses. So, you can imagine when all this was over, and Carmen himself drew up a chair at our table to ask us “How was dinner?”, I was more than prepared to tell him. Actually, I think he had asked John first, and John rather politely side-stepped the issue; I, however, let him know that I was only too willing to fill in the survey questionnaire, and I wasn’t about to succumb to the pusillanimity of John on this particular point. When I began with the problem with the hostess, Carmen interrupted me to ask if I would care to tell her to her face. John, I could see from the corner of my eye, knew this was not a good idea, but I saw little in the way, and I plowed forward. Well, to make a long story short, the evening ended by Carmen and the girl bolting abruptly from the table amid cries that he had one of the best restaurants in Toronto and invitations that we needn’t pay for our dinner, which, to John’s horror, I rebutted as an unnecessary and unwelcome charity; we stormed out of the dining room, halted long enough in the corridor to slap a wad of money into the hands of the pursuing waiter, and found ourselves quite energized once again on the wet autumn streets of Toronto wondering what the hell that had been all about.