Dining Out

To start the new week, uh, how about some food and drink:

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Who’s hungry for some delicious NJ diner breakfast food?

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Spurred on by writer Eric Keegan’s (The Dioramist) Insta the other day about a New Jersey diner, I thought of the comparison between there and here…

American-style “diners” are rare here in Great Britain. The closest I’ve experienced to one is probably Maggie Mays in Belfast, Northern Ireland – one place we ate in 2016 when we visited my niece who studies at Queen’s University. It’s so popular with students, tourists, and locals, we were lucky to get in the door.

[Excerpt from Conventions: The Garden At Paris. On Kindle for iPad. Click to expand.]

Pubs (public houses) have, as we know, for centuries been part of the British (and Irish) landscape as gathering places to socialize and, yes, to drink. Before radio, films, and television they were somewhere to go in the evenings to relax and find some entertainment – musicians, games, etc. – and perhaps even keep warm before homes had central heating. It is really only since the 1970s that they have incrementally become more and more restaurant-like, starting with burgers and other quick fare: what British may still term “pub grub.”

Indeed some pubs prior to the 1970s were also not really welcoming to women; they were where men went to drink after work. Decent ladies did not frequent such establishments. At best they might have had a corner where women could have a discreet drink.

Most pubs now do full meals. They all welcome everyone, including families with young children. However, they won’t serve under-18s alcohol.

Age eighteen is the drinking age here. Having worked at a British university and seen the way 18-20 year old students here socialize, I have long strongly believed British universities do not have the horrendous problem with alcohol-fueled sexual assaults on women anywhere near the scale that is seen in US universities because young women here are able to drink legally and socialize safely in public with their friends and their boyfriends (and even their husbands) as the adults they are. Unlike their American counterparts British (and other) women aren’t burdened by an infantilizing and “Prohibitionist-mentality” law – age 21 to drink – that reduces 18-20 year old adults to the same level as “twelve” year olds, leaving them immature and inexperienced with alcohol, and which drives them simultaneously “underground” to try to socialize. They don’t end up drinking in the likes of university “frat houses,” where privately – indeed, secretly – often they consume way too much alcohol alongside similarly binge-drinking young men (thanks to booze often purchased by older-than-21s, who are usually men), resulting too often in ugly and utterly appalling situations which would NOT occur in a public place.

In short, if American federal authorities really want to make a major dent in what has been termed an “epidemic” of sexual assault at US colleges and universities, all they need to do is allow the states once again the option to lower the drinking age to eighteen.

In villages, pubs remain central to community life. If you live in a village, it is almost a patriotic requirement to frequent your nearest pub – your β€œlocal” – in order to help keep it in business and maintain a “local spirit” (no pun intended); many pubs are finding it difficult to compete with inexpensive booze sold in supermarkets and with all the entertainment at home and elsewheres (and when most everyone has central heating at home now too, of course). If you don’t drink alcohol, there is no requirement to do so: all pubs serve every soft drink imaginable too, and often now even do cappuccinos, etc.

[The Brocket Arms pub and inn. Ayot Saint Lawrence, Hertfordshire. Photo by me, 2018.]

In ye olden days in the countryside they may have doubled as inns. In the world before automobiles and trains, travelers could find a warm place to sleep and food. Remember it could easily take eight hours to cover just thirty miles by horse and carriage.

Today some pubs do still offer a couple of rooms as accommodation. Rural pubs are also the best places to stop for β€œrefreshments” and perhaps a meal after a long weekend walk – a β€œramble,” as they say – in the countryside. Dogs are usually welcome too in at least the bar area, and almost certainly if you’re sitting outside. The sight of the pub around the last turn is almost sure to rejuvenate weary legs.

Despite America’s British colonial heritage, the US doesn’t truly have a pub direct equivalent. Pubs did exist in the 13 colonies before 1776 similar to what they were in Britain. After independence, though, they began to give way to the American 19th century temperance movement that eventually culminated in the 1920 constitutional amendment prohibiting the sale of alcohol (which was repealed in 1933).

American bars are not the same as pubs. Chains restaurants like Applebees, even though they have a bar and serve alcohol, are not pubs either. Most pubs in the US are often owned by expat or immigrant British and Irish and are essentially merely efforts to recreate for Americans in the US pubs in Britain and Ireland.

If Americans are fascinated with British pubs, American-style diners – with their huge menus and also huge portions – are legendary here in Britain. Think of Grease, or American Graffiti, or My Big Fat Greek Wedding, or all of the uncountable American films and television shows in which diners appear: that’s their image in many British minds. The Johnny Rockets chain provides one clear example.

In its way, the local diner is an American version of a pub. It’s a place close to home to have some “comfort food,” bump into neighbors (“Hi, Mike, how’s your grandson? You’ll have your regular? The sheriff is over there having his usual, too. [Susan turns towards the sheriff and laughs] Yes, Sheriff, you know I just like to let folks know you’re here…”), and perhaps even have a drink (if it has an alcohol license). Later this month, when we go over to New York for a couple of weeks, a British friend joining us who has never been to the US wants to eat in a “real” diner.

[Excerpt from Passports. On Kindle for iPad. Click to expand.]

Interestingly he will see a commonplace dining social convention in the US that I notice also surprises Europeans. American wait staff usually clear the table as each diner is finished. In Europe, they don’t clear anyone’s place until everyone at the table puts forks and knives down and has finished a course.🍴

Differences, differences, differences.

Have a good day, wherever you are in the world. πŸ™‚