Dining with Friends

Bill-newby L. G. William Chapman, B.A., LL.B.

It will come as no surprise for me to relate that some of the happiest times I remember were spent with friends at the trough, putting on the nosebag so to speak.  A case in point is my friendship with John “F”.  John is a well-read man with a Master’s Degree in Education and a native intellect. He has that ease of expression and analysis which only comes from inherent ability and a good measure of worldliness. In addition John favours the good life and the two of us dedicated a considerable amount of our spare time to devising ways of pursuing that very goal, but thankfully always bestowing upon our evil enterprises the mantle of intellectual propriety. So, for example, in 1999 we roosted in a large suite at the former Four Season’s Hotel (now part of Omni Hotels & Resorts ) on Sherbrooke Street, Montreal not far from the Musée des Beaux-Arts. From that well appointed springboard, in addition to a tour of the local art galleries, we visited “The Neuvième” restaurant at Eaton’s which, as the name implies, was located on the ninth floor of the old department store on St. Catharine’s Street.
The restaurant, for those not familiar with it, was an historical venue and the subject of an in-depth journalistic review for television. It was created very much along the lines of a stately dining hall on the Titanic, being long and relatively narrow, very high ceiling, and decorated with deco wall sconces of the era. There was an elevated area at the far end of the dining hall on which was located a grand piano. On the Saturday we lunched there a very accomplished musician, whom we later met and who informed us he was a music student at McGill University, was performing the finest of classical pieces amidst the clatter of silverware and chatter of the diners. In keeping with what was an obvious custom of the regular patrons we enjoyed  martinis before tucking into the regular fare of chicken pot pie, salmon in a cream sauce and the like. The linen service, the  attentive staff and the exuberance of the scene made for a thoroughly memorable luncheon.

I cannot, however, say that all dining engagements were so successful. Years ago when I attended Glendon Hall, and 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 exhibition 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  had nothing but the fondest memories of the place, the thick smell of garlic bread dripping with butter, the mouthwatering steaks and delectable lobsters displayed in mahogany cabinets behind leaded windows, the quaint fireplaces all housed in a grand old Toronto home, copper pots shining from the ceilings of the sumptuous rooms.

Accordingly I called ahead from Almonte, made the reservation by telephone and confirmed them in writing.  John and I stayed at the Royal York Hotel.  In keeping with a tradition which John had established on previous outings we enjoyed what he called “dressing drinks” of whiskey and soda 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. When we materialized in the front hallway 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 an invitation to follow her, she headed off in what we surmised was a direction we were to follow, which we did with stifled complaint.

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. 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 painfully elongated by continuing slow service. When at last we got through our hors d’oeuvres and the main course of filet mignon arrived, we thought we might be in for some smooth sailing.  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. Then when I looked over John’s shoulder I noticed two fully clothed firemen standing behind him. At first I thought the firemen had come as a result of our incident with the candlestick but then I saw to my complete astonishment that they were pitching a stretcher which they managed to expand in the limited space between our table and the one behind. They began loading the lifeless body of an elderly woman 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 it was all over and Carmen himself drew up a chair at our table to ask “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 complete the survey. 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 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 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 waiter and found ourselves once again on the wet autumn streets of Toronto wondering what that had been all about!