Monday 21 November 2016

Café Society

We're expecting a party of six!

About 20 years ago, newspapers and magazines were fond of sending a woman journalist to find out whether it was OK for single women to eat out in restaurants in the evening – now that women have got the vote, and everything. In every place she tried, she would be put in a corner, next to the kitchen, or next to the gents, and eventually the publications gave up.

I wouldn’t try to eat in a restaurant on my own in the evening, but I often eat lunch solo in cafés of all kinds – from posh to midrange to greasy spoon. This is what I’ve learned. Looking at your mobile is allowed, reading a newspaper is tolerated, reading a book is looked on more dubiously. In cafés with wifi, sitting and tapping on a laptop is OK. But nobody seems to like it if you take out a pencil and start doing the crossword, or correcting proofs.

I should add that I am disabled, and once I have sat down, taken off my coat and put down my bags, it takes me some time to reverse the process.

In an Enjoy Café on Stamford Hill I was encouraged to leave by a literal hand under the elbow from the gentle, polite waitress. A lot of bowing and apologising and deference, but she was still throwing me out. (Correcting proofs.)

In a Kings Cross café the waiter started moving tables around me as soon as I sat down. He initially asked me if I would mind moving, or taking my bags off the next-door chair. I was willing, but he changed his mind. However, he moved my second table away to form a pair with another. Eventually he came back and asked me to move into a table for two in a corner. (I never went back, and the place is now SHUT.)

In Newington Green I was asked to move to a table for two in a dark corner – too dark to read the paper. Trendy dangling filament bulbs are not great to read by. ("Expecting a party of six.")

In Green Lanes I was asked to move into a cold, empty back room designed for smoking shisha pipes. (There was plenty of room in the café proper. I stayed where I was.)

In Newington Common I was told – with a bow, a smile and a praying gesture – that they were about to close (in the middle of the afternoon). In Albion Road the proprietor stood in the doorway with a hangdog expression until I noticed him. “About to close” again. (In both venues I had been taking photographs out of the window.)

In Gray’s Inn Road I was asked to move, but then they relented. I stayed on the end of a table for six. I was joined several times by parties of three or four, but they all moved to tables for four as soon as they could. Perhaps they didn’t want me to overhear their conversation.

I’ve read that restaurants put young, attractive or even slightly famous customers in the window. As a single elderly woman I obviously have to be kept out of sight.

Of course there are many establishments which treat everybody well. I return to these, and recommend them, and give them good write-ups on Tripadvisor. But in future I shall know my place: I’ll head straight for the table for two in the corner, and avoid writing with a pencil or taking photographs.

And if you say anything about the music a café is playing, they’ll say: “We’re going to have live music! Jazz! And open in the evenings!” This never happens, fortunately. In fact it usually means that the café shuts or changes hands in a few weeks. I tried a (lovely) Turkish restaurant in Dalston recently and I’m sure they switched the music from Turkish to dull jazz standards as soon as I sat down. I just wish I could find a café like the long-gone Aroma chain that plays music from South America... However, the Café Deux Amis in Judd Street plays Classic FM.


  1. That's dreadful, I am horrified.
    Isn't it true that Wimpy Bars didn't allow unaccompanied women in late at night till some very late date?

  2. I hear the food is better in pubs, anyway! And I think I can now be the old bat in the corner with the port and lemon.

    1. ....muttering complaints, and everyone saying 'isn't she marvellous? she's 102 you know and fought Oswald Mosley.'