Family trip to Chinese restaurant for Budding Teenager’s recent 12th birthday. On a school night.
First, I rush home from work for obligatory but ill-timed birthday cake; we are, after all, about to embark on a multi-course Oriental feast. But it being six o’clock, we pile into slices of the choccy favourite nevertheless. The kids’ lack of ability to pace themselves on the food front comes direct from their patronage – the hypocrisy in their father trying to limit their intake is not lost on them, either, unfortunately.
We round up the troops, shepherding them into the car while refusing pleas from Challenging Middle (9) to “just get something I’ve forgotten”. Experience tells us that he’ll emerge a full five minutes later with an arsenal of weaponry strapped about his person, wholly inappropriate attire anywhere this side of Helmand province, let alone Tunbridge Wells’ finest Chinese establishment, Honeymoon.
By 7pm we’re attempting to negotiate the menu, which brings with it fresh challenges. In the past, we would likely scan the six-page opus at speed and then reduce the choice to two or three children-friendly options. Now Budding Teenager understandably likes to order for himself. Fine – except we have to explain what everything is, of course, testing our detailed knowledge of Szechuan cuisine to the limit. And then, inevitably Challenging Middle wants to get in on the whole independence act.
The menu is verbally worked through from dim sum to beef in black bean sauce, before he settles on chicken chow mein, of all things (“it’s got noodles!”) Ordering follows at haste, with tension about how late it is already beginning to seep in.
And the food is good: birthday boy and Indulged Youngest (7) tuck in with gusto, their parents with relief/surprise at the quality of the food. Crispy duck pancake techniques are taught, pork balls dipped, wontons tried for the first time. Challenging Middle determines early on that he doesn’t like anything, and is holding out for his fabled chow mein.
Entertainment in the form of the ‘lazy Susan’ (the authentic Chinese term, I believe) in the middle of the table, a charming chef who doubles as an artist, and even the odd bit of semi-civilised conversation sees us pretty much through without further incident.
Then, just as we’re about to leave, the staff discover it is Budding Teenager’s birthday and offer us some free puds. We’re all full, it’s late and the younger siblings are beginning to demonstrate classic ‘over-tired’ symptoms (irritating, over-reactive). But it seems churlish not to. Cue a seemingly interminable wait during which the adults start demonstrating classic ‘over-tired’ symptoms (irritable, over-reactive).
There follows a surreal final scene: the ‘special’ dessert emerges complete with candles, while a recorded version of Happy Birthday is played through the restaurant’s speaker system. But it’s an odd faux Chinese rendition in a squeaky falsetto, which goes on and on and on… and on some more. Each time it pauses, we – and the other diners somehow obliged to sing along at what is pushing 9pm by now – sigh with relief that it’s all over. But then it kicks off again for yet another excruciating round.
The upside is that we all end the experience in fits of giggles.
Why have a relaxed two-course family supper at home when you can have a by turns stressful, tasty, funny, educational, surreal and ultimately hysterical meal at considerable expense elsewhere? Wouldn’t change it for all the noodles in Tunbridge Wells.