Berni Inn was a chain of British steakhouses, established in 1955. It was established by brothers Frank and Aldo Berni, who modelled the chain on restaurants they had seen in America. The restaurants introduced the postwar British public to its own home-grown restaurant chain, which came with its own pre-stylised restaurants with Tudor-looking false oak beams and white walls.
By 1970 the chain comprised 147 hotels and restaurants, including the New Inn at Gloucester, the Mitre at Oxford, and several in Japan. It was the largest food chain outside the USA.
The most commonly ordered meal, even as late as the 1980s, was prawn cocktail, steak and Black Forest gateau. This is sometimes called the Great British Meal. As Simon Hopkinson and Lindsey Bareham note in their 1997 book The Prawn Cocktail Years, “cooked as it should be, this much derided and often ridiculed dinner is still something very special indeed”.
Her mother has that face on, lips pinched into a tight, anxious smile, lipstick already bleeding out, eyes wide with a heady mix of excitement and social anxiety. Her voice has ratcheted up a notch or two, consonants given an unnaturally fierce emphasis.
It is the 28th June 1979, her fathers’ 41st birthday and the first time that she has been judged old enough, sensible enough to join them on this annual steak and white wine pilgrimage. Old enough to be trusted to not draw attention,to let the side down.
And this is a big deal, eating out in the evening, dressing up, a taxi because tonight her parents will have a glass or two of white wine, maybe even an Irish Coffee.
She is already familiar with the food choices, the shape the evening will take, has, in her own head, made her menu choices; prawn cocktail, although she wonders if it will taste the same as her favourite crisps, steak and chips and then, the highlight of the evening, Black Forest Gateau, cake with cream, fresh fruit and somehow chocolate as well.
she cannot wait, has been excited, clock watching since her strangely early bath, her use of the special talcum powder, the nap she was encouraged to take while her mother vanished to the bathroom and reappeared smelling of the perfume her father hands her every Christmas Day.
By 6pm her mother is ready, both completely familiar and totally unknown, lips shine with more than her usual dab of Coty Rose, her hair has been teased, even bullied into a French plait and her toe nails gleam, deep red, in her best weddings, parties and dinner dances sandals. These are white, with a sharp wedge, angling the foot downwards, making balance hard as the child has discovered when she crept along the landing, holding tight to the banisters to keep her upright.
Her father is less unfamiliar, after all he leaves the house each day in a more sombre version of tonight’s outfit, but his shirt is as far away from the workaday whites, blues and his newest, smartest work shirt, grey with a white collar and cuffs as is possible while still retaining a father shaped space in her universe.
This shirt, his going out shirt is a riot of orange, purple and green, her mother calls it paisley, describes it as far too young for her father, but it’s a mild reprimand with no real sting to it and she has ironed it carefully, hung it on a wooden hanger on the outside of their shared wardrobe.
They are early, of course and somehow her parents become diminished as they enter the restaurant, taking up less space, eyes looking down, apologetic smiles.
As an adult, this, their reaction to any form of service drives her mad, makes her want to scream out loud
” For gods’ sake, they’re just doing their jobs”, but at 9 she too assumes an apologetic grin, feels genuinely sorry to be disturbing the staff, taking them away from folding knives and forks into paper serviettes, lighting candles in wax encrusted bottles, polishing glasses.
The waiter takes them, not to their table but to the bar and with a practised smile, carefully designed to make the infrequent diner feel at home and suggests that they have an aperitif.
There is a pause.
Alcohol is not a big part of their lives, sherry at Christmas, a bottle of brandy for emergencies yet to happen, the occasional lager shandy on a summer road trip.
There is another pause and then her mother smiles brightly and asks for a campari and soda, which when it comes is the most beautiful shade of pink and has a tiny umbrella hooked onto the side of the glass. Her father orders a whisky and water, adding “Don’t drown it mind”
A phrase, which although it comes from his mouth, seems completely alien, giving her the sense that this is both her father and not her father, almost but not quite a stranger.
She is relieved when her pepsi, served with ice and a slice of lemon, arrives. It gives her something to do with her hands and allows her to press the frosty glass against her cheek which already feels hot, although she is not quite sure why.
Her parents, who normally have no difficulty in filling every meal time with conversation are strangely silent. Her mother sips her drink, carefully blots her lips between each mouthful, her father stares into his drink and then swallows it down in a single gulp and doesn’t meet his wife’s’ eyes.
It is a relief to move into the dining area, suddenly busy with napkins, menus, another waiter lighting an unnecessary candle, given that it will not be even dusk for hours yet.
They all read the menu carefully, her parents even reading little bits, descriptions of dishes to each-other in quiet murmuring voices and then her father orders for them
” Prawn Cocktail for everyone to start with, steak, chips and peas for the ladies, steak with garlic mushrooms for me and black forest gateau with extra cream all round for desert, oh and a bottle of Blue Nun”
He nods at the waiter, satisfied that he has done this well, held his own, smiles at his daughter
” No cake unless you eat everything on your plate”
There is another silence while they await their first course.
To Be Continued…….