Nothing on earth is, to me, much more intolerable than what your man of many words, your speech-making monstrosity, knows by the name of a public dinner. To him such a function signifies one thing, and one thing only: an orgie of inordinate feeding, instantly succeeded by an orgie of inordinate monologues, real turtle followed by real twaddle, venison giving place to vain platitudes, the loving cup tottering from hand to hand as a signal to plethoric officialdom that the era of stammer about the Royal Family, and bad grammar about the Army and Navy, is at hand, while four unfortunate persons are, more often than not, ushered in from some secret place to pipe and
trill "O who will o'er the Downs?" to an assemblage that can only think of active exercise as an invention of the Devil, and of any downs whatever as things to be gazed on from afar by the glazed eyes of men who can never hope to play a game of golf or to "give the dogs a run" again. At such public dinners as these Death often sits, I feel convinced they clear the crowd from behind the door at which the younger generation is so diligently knocking.
The restaurant dinner, long so popular in Paris, is at last becoming as popular in London, and even the owners of charming houses, and the possessors of divine cooks, desert their homes to entertain their friends in public, and fare forth to seek the gaiety and the distraction attendant upon those public feasts which need terrify neither the digestion nor the brain. Of course there exist, and will always exist, persons of a serious cast of thought -- the frivolous name them fogies -- who prefer to swallow in seclusion, and who consider that the hum and twinkle of distant violoncellos and violins obscure the alertness of the palate and slay the serenity of the mind. These individuals are apt to suppose that a public dinner, of whatever kind, must closely resemble the banquet of the invalids described by Zola in "Lourdes," and are lost in astonishment at the modern restlessness which leads so many of us to give our cooks a quiet evening over the "Family Herald," while we flutter from the Savoy to Claridge's, intent upon the satisfaction of the ear and eye, as well as upon the satisfaction of the appetite. They call the smallest restaurant a caravanserai, and the most soothing quartet of strings a brass band. And, sitting quietly at home, not wholly free from a haunting sensation of being "out of it," they predict the end of the world and the speedy destruction of this generation of diners in public.
The diners in public don't much care. They find it entertaining to exchange the usually small private dining room for a large and lofty apartment, carefully lighted and admirably ventilated. They enjoy the murmur of the music prompting them to talk. Above all, they are amused by the vision of the world, which fills their eyes more satisfactorily than the ancestors in oils at home. No doubt the staring hero who fought at Waterloo, the simpering damsel who played with her embroidery at the Court of Queen Anne, were excellent persons in their way. No doubt the morose gentleman with the thin legs, to which St. Michael's Mount forms a background, was kind to the impossible poodle at his feet and to the impossible wife at his side. Still, one has seen him before, has summed up his calves and his virtues, reckoned his wrinkles, admirably carried out by the artist, and decided upon the date of the snuff-box reposing in his wooden fingers. One is proud to bear his name and to own his old furniture, but one would rather see the last living hero in the flesh than him upon canvas, and hear the conversation of the newest wit at the next table, than listen to his eternal silence. The people of to-day love the pageant of the world, and the world may be seen looking its best when it is dining, after the soup has stolen its fatigue and before the liqueurs have flushed its cheeks. For the man who is not genial towards the end of a good dinner is probably never genial at all; and the woman who can't be lively over an ice soufflet, or sweet after a glass of dry champagne, can scarcely possess the happy capacity for persiflage, or the feminine gift of fascination. Dinner is a delightful fact, and it is also a fact that delightful people are most delightful at dinner.
There are men and women who can be brilliant or entertaining anywhere, even in a bathing machine or a four-wheeler. Unfortunately they are rare birds. Most of us require a certain amount of assistance to enable us to be amusing, witty, and gay. Place us among the ancestors in oils, in the small private dining room, and we are a little dull. The poodle and St. Michael's Mount do not prompt us to our best bon mot. The impossible wife, the wrinkles, and the snuff box do not elicit our latent powers of anecdote and of repartee. But when we dine in public, when we find ourselves surrounded by a gay universe intent upon entrees and intercourse, when we hear delicious fiddles playing Delibes and have a world of conversational material spread out before us -- in our neighbours, where is the limit to our enchanted chatter? The sight of the fascinating actress, wearing her hair in indiscreet bandeaux, at the next table but one, reminds us of that capital story about a European monarch; the profile of the politician, who is trying to find definite sustenance in the minute body of the hot quail, on the left, jogs our memory of a passage in his early career which we, at least, shall not willingly let die. All about us there is a sparkle of talk which acts upon us like an electric battery. The great room is full of mental emanations which are as bellows waking the slumbering fires of our souls. Scarcely knowing why, we grow lively, we feel elated. In the distance we catch sight of friends looking hilarious, and we are disposed to emulate them. Why should they have the monopoly of the evening's gaiety? We arm our wits for the fray, and this arming is no longer an effort. On the contrary, it has become a pleasure. In a crowd, self-consciousness flies. Small rooms, small companies, are apt to foster it, unless the gathering be a closely intimate one. The laugh that is conspicuous in a private house is no more than a smile in a smart restaurant, and if a jest is feeble or a story rather lacking in point, the fiddles are very kind and hide the rags, or even turn them into a semblance of brocade.
The extraordinary person, the wit of the very first water, the profound philosopher, the passionate seeker after knowledge, the romantic dreamer, these may find their happiest hunting ground within narrow walls and a strictly limited circle. For them should be arranged a carefully chosen "octave." Rogers would probably as soon have turned somersaults as have given his good things to a restaurant audience, or told his bitterly flavoured anecdotes, with their "sharp sauce," to an accompaniment by Mascagni or a Hungarian Waltz. But the world is mainly composed of ordinary people, to whom conversation is a distraction rather than a study, and who scarcely desire that their sayings shall be carefully recorded, or the play of their vagrant thoughts be busily noted down. Some of us converse, a few -- modern Coleridges -- hold forth, most of us merely chatter. And nowhere can chatter be more facile and more agreeable than at these modern public dinners. They are growing, and they will doubtless grow, in favour. They are beloved of women, for women love to stand at the edge of a parterre of gowns, to note and to compare the various cuts and colours, to make sure, rapturously, that they are holding their own in the great and sedulous competition of fashion. They are enjoyed by men, for men delight to see pretty women; and even the old fogies find a fearful pleasure in them now and then, when they are lured from the chimney corner to the corner table behind the glass screen, where one can see the pageant without being too conspicuous oneself. Of course they say they can't eat in the midst of such a bustle, but somehow the remark only comes at the end of dinner, over the black coffee. It would be impolite to point out that they have forced themselves to ply "a very good knife and fork," and to make short work of some seven courses. Still there is the fact, shocking as it may seem.
To tell the truth, bustle, of an ordered, a refined, a carefully-thought-out kind, has become almost a necessity of the race. Only the rare spirits object to it. Most of us are like the happy heroine of the old novel, who loved nothing so well as to pass a morning "in pleasant bustle and shopping." But we carry the pleasant bustle on into our evenings, and leave out the shopping. We can obtain occasional necessary quiet in the country, or in foreign towns, on the banks of old Nile, in the sunny desert at Biskra, in the Swiss valleys, or among the hoary Scotch mountains. In London we want to see our neighbours and the notorieties of the day. We want to hear the last good thing and the last gay waltz, to note the very latest fashion, and -- low be it spoken -- to know just a little about the most recent scandal. We do! We may deny it, we may protest, we may call the gods to witness -- but we do. And so we enjoy, with an ever-increasing pleasure, the life of the restaurant, where quick gossip swims up under the shaded electric lights, where the genial existence of the huge city is set to music and to laughter, where we can forget for awhile our cares among the flowers, and can realise that we are all a great brotherhood. For when does man most truly feel, in the depths of his soul, that he is but a member of a mighty family? Some will say in heroic moments, on a battle-field; or in frigid moments, among the petrified assembly gathered round the comic papers in the dentist's waiting-room; or in pious moments, shrouded in the shadows of some mighty cathedral, while the distant organ sings like some mysterious eternal voice. It would be nearer the point to say when he is dining in the midst of other diners. A good dinner is a marvellous link between man and man, let the vegetarians say what they will. Friendship is not meant to be baptised with water, nor fidelity pledged over a mess of lentils.
We are exquisitely human although we may not wish it. And the restaurant is the temple of humanity, where we fall before the shrine of the chef, and offer up the incense of an honest devotion at the altar of the cordon bleu.
"Public Dinners", by Robert Hichens; Homes of the Passing Show, 1900.