The Worst Noel

The Christmas Eve I will never forget was 25 years ago in 1986. I was in Tokyo on a research trip for London Weekend Television (LWT). For reasons I can’t recall I couldn’t get away earlier. So, as the Noel approached, I faced the prospect of spending the night on my own at The New Otani Hotel. The next day I was flying out to Delhi.

Initially, this didn’t perturb me. It  was my first visit to Japan and I could think of a million things to do. But come the 23rd, the thought of being on my own started to annoy.

More than anything else, I couldn’t work out what to do. A quiet dinner in my room seemed the worst way of celebrating. Yet I knew no one who would invite me home and there were no colleagues with me to make our own group. I was alone in Tokyo, a city I did not know.

Eventually I decided to treat myself at LWT’s expense to a slap-up dinner. That seemed like appropriate recompense for being stuck in a strange city over Christmas.

The famous French restaurant La Tour d’Argent has a branch at the New Otani and I was aware of its high reputation. In the ’80s this Parisian establishment was considered the finest in the world.

I asked for a booking for two. I had no idea who the other person would be but I felt confident the pull of the restaurant would be sufficient to find a companion.

The maitre ’d was astounded. “We’ve been booked since September,” he said, unable to believe I could have expected a last minute table. He firmly added it wasn’t possible to squeeze me in. But I was equally adamant. The prospect of being alone on Christmas Eve lent a formidable  desperation to my efforts.

Late on 23rd night, I got  a call from the maitre ’d. After juggling the seating he had made room for a table near the kitchen door. Now, beyond giving me the good news, he had also phoned to tell me there was a special menu. Would I like it sent to my room? Of  course, I said, thrilled with this development, and fell asleep contentedly.

I woke on the 24th to find a package that had been slipped under the door. It was the Tour d’Argent menu and wine  list. Not only was there a special menu, there was also a special price. It was £250 per person. And the only alcohol on offer was champagne. Believe it or not, the cheapest bottle was £200 pounds. So the minimum for two was £700.

I froze. LWT would never accept. In the ’80s, this was a small fortune. And it was unheard of for a researcher to charge such amounts for dinner. Suddenly I was desperate to get out of this mess. But how? After all, it was my insistence that had got me into this in the first place.

I decided my best bet was a crafty ruse. I rang the maitre ’d to ask if my table for two could be changed to one for three. “I have an unexpected extra guest.” He flatly refused, as I hoped he would, and that gave me the excuse to cancel.

I spent Christmas Eve eating Big Macs on the Ginza. The next day, Christmas, I spent on a plane. On both occasions the food was forgettable but I didn’t have the gumption to complain.

The views expressed by the author are personal


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