It was supposed to be a perfect romantic evening: a trip to the theatre followed by supper at a cute little French bistro. My wife and I hadn't had a night out together since she gave birth to our daughter last July so we were both looking forward to it. Spending quality time together is recommended in all the baby books. It's a way of injecting a bit of excitement back into your marriage.
My first mistake was getting tickets to The Pillowman, a new play by Martin McDonagh at the National. By the time the curtain went down on the first half we'd been forced to witness--or hear about--a child having its toes amputated, a man being forced to eat said toes, a child being raped, a child being tortured and a child being burnt to death. Not the ideal play, then, for a couple with a four-month-old baby. We decided to cut and run before it got really gruesome.
Our table at La Poule au Pot was booked for 9.45pm, but I hoped I could charm the maitre 'd into seating us when we arrived at 9.20pm. This neighbourhood favourite in Pimlico regularly appears on critics' top 10 lists, earning high marks for the friendliness of its staff.
"We're a little early I'm afraid," I said, flashing him my best Hugh Grant grin. "Is there any chance you could squeeze us in?"
"You're not a liddle hurley," the Frenchman replied, looking at his watch. "You're a lot hurley."
The absence of a table was all the more surprising given just how many are crammed into La Poule au Pot. Clearly, the owners belong to the EasyJet school of space management. This is a bistro that thinks it's a gastrodome.
When we were eventually seated it was in such a horrible location it was almost comic. Directly behind me--the backs of our chairs were touching--were two middle aged Germans shouting to make themselves heard; to my right was a table of five drunk American investment bankers; and to my left was a table of three sad singletons staring silently at their wine glasses. True, our table was lit by a candle, but it was guttering so violently in response to a gale force draught that I thought my wife's hair might catch fire. It was about as romantic as a fish and chip shop on the Falls Road.
After that, the evening became an exercise in totting up the additional ways in which La Poule au Pot disappointed us. The 75cl bottle of Perrier that was brought in response to my request for a single glass of fizzy water was warm. My asparagus starter was overcooked. The waiter forgot to bring the glass of house red my wife ordered with her main course. My chicken pot pie turned out to be a grey bit of leg floating around in tepid bathwater. It was, by some margin, the worst meal I've had this year.
In a sense, though, the fact that La Poule au Pot turned out to be so profoundly awful was a blessing in disguise. I'd insisted on going to the theatre even though Caroline had wanted to see a movie and after the horror of The Pillowman I could tell that she was itching for a row. If La Poule au Pot had been even slightly less unpleasant she would have left me have it, but after the third French waiter had ignored our efforts to attract his attention we became comrades in arms. That old Dunkirk spirit rose to the surface. It was the Battle of Waterloo all over again.
By the time we got home, we were giggling away like a couple of schoolgirls. It may not have been a conventionally romantic evening, but it did end up bringing us closer together. I'm seriously thinking of going back to La Poule au Pot for our next wedding anniversary.