To my left sat four colleagues. Strangers to me, they clearly knew each other well, as why else would three of them put up with the loud noise emanating from the fourth?
Not just loud, but incessant. A constant stream of deafening drivel that suffocated all other sound from the air.
When the bill came, she left for the toilet. Now's your chance. Run. Run away before she returns. They couldn't. They were trapped by a need to pay the bill and, perhaps, the blissful relief of silence, not wishing to disturb that perfect fourth course of peace.
Before long, she was back, but thankfully coats were all on and they left quickly. The panes of glass trembled as she turned the corner and disappeared along the alleyway, into the dark night of the City.
The sounds of the restaurant drifted back into focus. The clink of metal on plate, subtle laughter, murmured conversations, a few in French - a good sign. We were in Le Relais de Venise L’Entrecôte, a name I'm glad not to pronounce. Red booths, wooden panels, and Mr Creosote sat in the corner. The bedrock of a good French meal.
L’Entrecôte serves food in that most traditional of French ways: a small table, not large enough for the smallest of orders; fast, well drilled staff; and no concern to the preference of the customer.
It's good. One menu, one meal. Green salad, again served in that traditional French way - swimming in a bath of dressing - followed by steak and chips. That's chips, not frites. We're in England, dontcha know.
Okay, there is one choice. The steak can be cooked how you like, from the choices of either medium or rare. No chargrilled coal for my Mother then. If you're mad, you can also choose not to have a second helping of steak and chips; but, they probably ask you to leave if you did.
I have absolutely no problem with L’Entrecôte. I'm sick of choice. There are too many options on most menus, and a lot of them I discount anyway. No, let someone else choose for me and I'm a happy man. Besides, if the chef thinks he's best sticking to one thing he knows well and cooks well, who am I to complain? And it's steak, after all - thinly sliced, pink tinged steak, drowned (again) in a green garlic-herb-butter sauce. Who needs anything else?
The complete meal of 5 courses - I added a creme brûlée and very French it was too; although, almost £6 for burnt custard is a little cheeky - with a bottle of wine, came to a nice £70-odd quid. Simple to split with the person sitting opposite you and one of the best value meals you're likely to find in the City, without barging through the crowd at a Wetherspoons.
As the creme brûlée arrived, so too did another table of guests. Two men this time, sitting even closer, talking even louder. Girlfriends, wives, weddings, and infidelity - a conversation of such City-stereotypes, it was hard to gauge if this wasn't just put on as part of the experience. My ears began to ring, had I not scraped that pot of custard clean in record time, they'd have started to bleed.
Time to leave. That brief window of enjoyment, over. The food at L’Entrecôte cannot be faulted, especially at that price. The company on neighbouring tables, most certainly can. Go, please go, just take a pair of earplugs.