Making a Meal of It
Seating envy, a Greek tragedy
Is where you sit in a restaurant just as important as the food you eat while you're there?
The philosophy behind Greek village-building really does seem to have been, “Right lads, we’ve got a church, a place to put our fishing boats and somewhere to drink ouzo. Excellent work, everyone. Village-building done for the day. Jorgos, grilled octopus on you.”
The microscopic village of Mandrakia, nestled in a crook of the island of Milos, is just such a spot.
Mandrakia is not the kind of place you “stumble across”. You’re kind of herded there by an infernal labyrinth of unfathomably narrow roads, which we got lost in trying to find a beach. Not being able to turn around, and with no beach anywhere near, we changed our goal to “find somewhere to have a drink and something to eat that was in the sea five minutes ago”.
Which is how we wound up at Medusa, a little eatery that looks like someone had had a wet dream about the most picturesque Greek restaurant ever created and somehow turned that dream into a real place. Perched right next to the sea, whitewashed houses clustered around as the gentle haze of the Greek afternoon sank deep into our skin and the island cats playfully tried to steal our calamari, while pretending they were just checking their Bitcoin portfolios.
And the food was just as it should be: fresh, flavourful as all hell and abundant. So, good times guaranteed – right?
The problem was that, when we got there, the place was heaving, which meant we got stuck at one of the rubbish tables. We were near the bins, down in the dark where the cats’ playful rambunctiousness was starting to feel a little bit more like they were in a gang and about to come at us with knives. And it grated.
My girlfriend had quickly spotted the best seat in the house and very definitely wanted to be at that table. That one where the perfect couple with the great tans and the perfectly-rumpled, casual linen shirts were sitting, in an elevated nook that basically had the fish jumping out the sea onto their plates. And we weren’t even close.
By this time I was fending off a short-haired tabby with murder in his eyes. But, the food was truly delightful and the gentle sound of the Aegean Sea lapping just feet away made it a treasure of an evening, despite our placement envy. Even so, the toothpaste was out the tube. We’d seen what could be. We could be the ones who were the envy of all around us. And we wanted it. Badly.
We went back a couple of days later to try to snag that table. And, by all miserable luck, we were again unsuccessful. The Armenian waitress recognised us from our last visit and decided she should just call us “South Africa”, because English names are stupid, and said we shouldn’t be too bothered because the swordfish was very good that day and it tasted the same, no matter where you were sitting.
But here’s the thing. Being at the rubbish table at a restaurant can really niggle at you. And every restaurant has that section - close to the toilets or right by the front door, that lets in the draught every time someone walks in and inevitably doesn’t close it properly, or in the middle of the floor where you’re uncomfortably surrounded by other diners and their loud discussions about the benefits of activated charcoal.
It’s the bit that’s not the “cool” bit. It’s the dark corner where everyone’s smelly coats are hung up and all the people who’ve got seated there are trying to put a brave face on it and pretend they’re just super happy, thanks, and not jealous or disappointed at all. And someone has to sit there. It’s the Law of Restaurant Occupation. You can either spend the whole time letting it get to you or just get on with having your meal.
As we were settling into our still-not-that-table-for-the-second-time, I realised a big family was sitting where we’d been a couple of nights before. It was hard not to notice them because they were practically flinging wine and bowls of fresh squid and giant Greek salads and souvlaki down their faces, while being joyfully noisy and generally having the best time ever. Which suddenly made me feel very silly. Because it just goes to show you how quickly one can get confused about what’s important.
Armenian Waitress was right, the best part of the restaurant is on your plate, not where your plate happens to be.