We take a cab to Chinatown.
“Do you have a place in mind?” David asks as we stroll through alleyways chock full of red and gold souvenirs. We’d met in an online chatroom prior to my arrival in London. David was sweet and courteous enough, but I knew there was something…dark about him. We went on a few dates because he was definitely an honest guy, he just didn’t always tell the truth.
I shrug. It is chilly and I put my jacket on. “Not really. Just somewhere that looks good.”
We study a few outer facades. Were ducks hanging in the window? How clean were the tables? What kind of ambiance did the lighting provide? Some restaurants have a few criteria, but none had all. We agree on a decent-looking place on the main road, and walk inside.
A small, wrinkled Asian man leads us to a table in the basement of the restaurant, despite there being plenty of open seating above ground. Only one other couple is seated in this Chinese restaurant dungeon. The lights are too bright. The decor akin to that of a 1980s soap opera set – fan-shaped mirrors, pastel-colored tiling.
“…not exactly the kind of place I would have pictured for a date,” I mumble as we look at the menu.
“Yeah love, it is a bit dodgy, innit?” David replies in his South London cockney accent. He sneers at the empty dining area.
“It looks a lot nicer upstairs, why did they shove us down here?” I ask
“Should we make a run for it, love?” he makes a motion like a hitch hiker towards the exit.
I nod. “Yeah. Let’s go.”
We tramp upstairs and pass the maitre’d. “We left somefin’ in the car chap, be a jiffy right back.” I’m not entirely sure the man at the front comprehends what David conveyed but either way, he doesn’t raise an eyelid.
“I can’t believe we just left the restaurant,” I acknowledge as we look for a new place to dine.
“Yeah, well, like yeh said,” David replies. “It’s no place for a propa’ date yeah. Let’s find somewhere new.”
To me, it seemed odd that a Chinese culture such as this should exist in London. Chinese settlers made sense in America – their history went back far beyond those of typical Atlantic-crossing immigrants. But London? What did they build here? Chow Mein and plastic junk shops? Not only that, but it was incredibly weird for me to hear any ethnicity outside of Caucasian speak in a British accent. Just not something you really prepare for when living in the Anglo-Saxon haven of your girlhood dreams.
We settle on a new place, a bit more sparkly than the last and definitely more populated. They put us at a table meant to seat six, but at least we are sitting. Our menus are handed to us and the host leaves.
The menu is extensive, but something is amiss.
“All of the prices are handwritten,” I remark.
He studies the items. “You’re too right, love. That’s queer.”
“That typically means it’s a tourist menu,” I remember reading in my travel preparations that hand-written or penciled-in prices are ways that foreign restaurants scam their customers. They had two menus available, and the ones with scribbled in numbers were often inflated beyond belief.
“This is so sketchy,” he says, closing his menu. “Do you wanna split?”
“Again?” I laugh. But indeed, I do.
“Yeah chap, we forgot somethin’ in the car, we’ll be right back, honest,” David repeats to the drowsy waiter who eventually comes around to take our order.
“We’ll be right back,” I echo as we all but run out of the dining room.
We can’t stop laughing in the street upon our exit. To abandon a restaurant one time is different, but twice is criminal. And there is a lack of new places to stalk out as well.
“Shall we go for steaks?” I ask, eying a cheesy European joint at the far corner.
“Capitoll idea love,” we walk arm in arm down the alley to the entrance of civilization.
Most times when I think about my impromptu dates with Englishmen, that story comes to mind.