Lost Proper Tea

It was a restaurant we had researched online. It was only a few streets away from the hotel, and they were open about the fact that they spoke English. That was important, as neither of us had a whole amount of Swedish that we could rely upon. We had found it easily and arrived there early.

The staff at the restaurant were all very helpful and welcoming, putting us at a table in an area with an English-speaking waiter, and presenting us with a pair of English-language menus. We selected the wine first and tucked in; the menu was extensive and not too expensive. We ordered very well.

The room itself was slightly odd: I have eaten in many restaurants where it had a hint of the family sitting room before, but never like this. It was fairly fabricky: more so than any restaurant should really choose to be, if it wants to remain cleanable. The walls had been wallpapered and painted.

We ate, we paid and then we left, happy that we had had a good meal in a good neighbourhood Italian restaurant, in a wonderful city. We retired for the night and carried on our holiday. Even if you put a gun to my head I could not remember where that restaurant is. And that saddens me.

I was wandering around the City of Dublin one holiday – on my own for a change, and new to the city. I was hungry, I was thirsty, and I was sick of walking. I had spotted a café down by the river, and I worked up to plucking up the courage to looking at their front door. Sandwiches and coffee: great.

There was a fat man sat outside, smoking a cigarette. He looked like he was from a town square in a hotter European country, where brandy and cigarettes are a mid-morning snack. He stubbed out his cigarette and followed me in to the café. It turns out he was just about to offer to take my order.

As I often still do, I panicked when I looked at the menu, and ordered the first thing I could vaguely wrap my head around. It was a chicken, mozzarella and pesto panini, and it would take a minute or two to get to me. I ordered a coffee to go with it: I want to say a cappuccino, but I don’t think it was.

The room was dark, and felt like a monk’s cell; I remember the creamy froth of the coffee and the crispy bite of the outside of the panini; I remember being OK with the pesto for a change; I do not remember for the life of me anything else about the café, and I doubt I’d ever find it ever again.

The second time I was in Helsinki was different from the first: I wasn’t alone, for a start. My partner and I leapt in to the city feet first, and wanted to explore every square metre of the city, regardless of whether I had been there before. I was happy with that, but I also had my own agenda there.

I had been there a few years earlier, and had had a superb curry in a cheap place on one of the main streets. It was a cross between a curry restaurant and a supermarket takeaway meal: it was tasty but basic. It had none of the bells and whistles of a sit down restaurant; melamine tables in a shop front.

The second time I was there I spend a few minutes looking for the place every time I was on what I thought was the right street, knowing after our first pass that I was on a hiding to nothing. Rather than not being able to find the restaurant, it had closed, and I was suddenly rather sad for its loss.

I had eaten what they had called Butter Chicken, but it was closer to a Chicken Tikka Masala. It came with rice and a few crispy things. Soft drinks were dispensed from a machine, and refills may or may not have been free. I sat facing a billboard of an Orang-utan, and I had a thoroughly great time there.

There are several places in Venice I hope never to lose, no matter whether they are as good as I currently remember them being: A café run by and dedicated to twins; an osteria seemingly under the ground; a bar from the 1950s, selling intentionally flat Aperol Spritz. All truly unique places.

The underground osteria – Osteria La Portego – I actually started following on Facebook as soon as I was back in range of a good wi-fi signal, so important was it to me that I not lose their place in my mind. I have followed them in the intervening years, wondering if they are as good as we remember.

We had dined on small plates of wondrous goodies, far from the endless croquettes and crostini of most of the cicchetteria we had tried. There were hot and cold dishes, served on to plates, out of big oven dishes. The pricing was obscure, and confused our most English of minds. We ate rather a lot.

It is the fact that we had only chanced upon it as we wandered the labyrinthine streets which gave me most pause. That is precisely the kind of situation where I find myself not being able to find the restaurant subsequently. Social media for the win, on this one and only occasion, it seems.

I have a theory that every holiday I go on I find somewhere cool, or eat something great that I will never find again. It has made me take more notice of where I am going, and what I am doing all the time. I take a lot of business cards, which live for years in my wallet, just in case I find myself back.

Memory warps and businesses live and die. I have walked down streets in Reykjavik, expecting to find something at the bottom: a shop, a restaurant or a hot dog stall. Only the world was different when I got there: the arrangement of buildings had not shifted, but it was not what I had expected.

I can live with realisations like that: at least I know it is my fault and that I can rationalise it. When the situation is that a business has closed, I find myself thinking about the people who had worked there. When I instinctively know that I will never find the place again I feel like I have lost something.

I am always on the lookout for new foods, but the pull of the old and the well-remembered is strong. I will never be one of those people who will only ever eat one of the same eight things which they have always eaten, but some food memories have a massive pull, and that is very seductive indeed.