|Tintoretto, Last Supper, oil on canvas, Venice, Italy, 1594. Via The Art Writer|
Over the years, I have been to a lot of art dinners. Some of these have been relaxed, stylish, enjoyable affairs: others have not. I've eaten dinner with art people after exhibition openings in cheap and cheerful Chinese restaurants where dinner is a thinly veiled excuse for terrible Karaoke performances. I've been to small well-mannered art dinners in private rooms and clubs, and I've been to the kind of big riotous dinners which end in arguments over the check and no one remembering who ordered what.
I'm familiar with all the tricks and types; the rueful pocket-patting 'lost wallet haka'; the drunken uninvited plus-one; the person who orders several expensive bottles of wine and leaves early, paying only for their food; the person who wishes only to discuss their current multiple international projects; the person who insists on recounting at length the compliments paid to them by other more famous people; in fact, I'm familiar with the whole catalogue of art dinner crimes. I'm also well-versed in the strategic sit-down. This is a technical move in which you hang back and then make a rush for it at the critical moment in order to be seated by interesting fellow-diners. (Or at least not stuck at the end of the table, wedged into a corner with the dull ones. Or having to sit with your legs inelegantly astride the table leg. I never fancy that much.)
Due largely to the dampening effects of earthquakes both on exhibition openings and restaurants, I haven't been to an art dinner for some time. But the other week I was invited to one. I was quite excited about this. So excited, in fact, that I forgot myself completely and started boasting about my past prowess at the strategic sit-down manoeuvre. "Oh yes," I caught myself saying airily. "The important thing is to know exactly when to sit down. It's all about the timing."
I think you may have an idea of where this story is going.
I got to the restaurant a few minutes early. I hadn't been there before, though I'd heard good things about it; a Thai restaurant in a small suburban mall, which has had great reviews. (With the central city closed, the good neighbourhood businesses are really coming into their own.) It was noisy, fragrant with spices, filled with couples and families and small groups of people eating dinner and talking animatedly. Black-uniformed waiting staff circulated busily through the room. There was a long table over to one side. "I'm here to have dinner with a big group," I said to the harrassed-looking maitre'd. "But it looks like I'm the first one here."
"Please sit down," he said, gesturing to the long table.
"Do you mind if I wait over here?" I asked. "I'll feel a bit of a dick sitting at that big table by myself."
"No, please sit down," he answered, his professional smile tightening. So I did. And in the modern style, passed the time tweeting about what a dick I felt.
Some minutes passed. I read the replies to my tweets, variously facetious and sympathetic. I checked the clock. I began to feel uneasy. Had I got the time wrong? Had I got the date wrong? Had they cancelled and no one told me? A waitress came over and took my drink order. "Don't worry," she said kindly. "Your friends will probably be here soon." The glass of wine took ages to arrive, and still I sat there, pretending I had important business to do on my phone, all alone at a table for twenty.
It took nearly half an hour before people started to arrive. Advancing on the long table, a couple looked at me with interest, but kept going, down to the other end of the table. Clearly they didn't want to sit with me. Which was fine, because I didn't know them. But then I was struck by a horrible thought. Had there been a double-booking? I got up and went to the other end of the table to talk to the strangers.
"Are you here for the art thing?" I asked.
"No, it's a dinner for Heidi," the woman answered.
And then I was struck by the most horrible thought of all. "This restaurant is called Sema, isn't it? Sema's Thai Cuisine?"
"No, this is Corianders. Did you want Sema? It's over there, across the walkway."
The woman was roaring with laughter. She was incredulous. "Surely you realised this is an Indian restaurant?" And of course, as I looked around, it was unmistakably so.
At Sema's, my party had already been there for half an hour, the bottles were open, the conversation was flowing, and there were only two seats left at the end of the long table. Happily, everyone present was interesting and I wasn't required to Have The Leg.