Several years ago, we went on one of those two-week tours of Great Britain, with an entire span of history crammed into those few days. Several of the excursions were quite memorable, long sought and long anticipated, and others just materialized, as if awaiting us like Brigadoon, with their enchantment and mystery.
One of the "extras" we chose was a dinner at one restaurant several blocks from our hotel. We were left off by the bus in the still-sunny afternoon, and ushered up a narrow, ancient stairway with creaks to befit a tomb; the finger-polished banister was worn smooth as butter, and the Juliet-window of the dining room upstairs opened over a busy patio below, filled with great quantities of the loud, tattooed, pierced young whose music and voices somehow did not waft up to the second story.
We were alone there, the twenty or so of us, around an “L-ish” table that snaked through the room; the wall décor was evidently hand-applied, with fleurs-de-lis and heads of lions plastered no-two-alike, on each of the four walls. Candlelight and stiff, rustly napery and heavy gleaming silver made the table a picture from any age.
There were glorious cheeses, fresher-than-fresh vegetables, breads so fresh from the big brick oven that you could smell the yeast of the next pans rising. Heavy meats, but wonderful, I remember, and the lamb was a sprouty little topiary of rosemary sprigs. No one ever heard of calories or carbs, as attested by one dish of "Champ" or Champit potatoes, which are a lovely mash with great lashings of sauteed green onions, heavy stand-a-spoon-in cream, all served with a great hole in the middle, into which goes about a cup of butter to melt and run all down through the dish with each subsequent dip of the spoon.
The dessert cart was a marvel, with very dainty offerings, as well as good heavy cakes and more of that marvelous cream on everything. I chose a slice of orange torte, and it was the essence, the distillation, of all great oranges and their sun-heavy juices and zests--orange mousse and orange layers and whipped cream rosettes with candied peel. The server whacked into that beautiful cake like beheading an escaping fish, wedging off a great slice worthy of any king's table.
The quivering chocolate mousse-cake was so tempting, and what the heck, we were only there once, so we shared a slice of that, as well. And the breads were all heavy, moist, buttery-delicious. One loaf was like an immense scone, filled with currants and sultanas and peel, sliced in half like a big shortcake, to be filled with another half-pound of butter and---thick cream.
The room and the dim lighting, with the scent of aged wood and candle-flicker and draperies of another age---the whole aura of the place took us to a former time, of great houses with staffs of hundreds and entertaining on a grand scale a matter of daily life. Our walk through the crowd downstairs had assaulted our ears with the booming music of the patio speakers and the shrieks and laughter and loud talk of a jolly bar-crowd---when one person speaks louder to be heard over the din, and then the next, until the noise grows exponentially from hubbub to clamor, feeding on itself. Clouds of smoke and the scent of beer and ale punctuated the fog of exhaust fumes, and the hum and roar of the busy street flowed around the pavement like a tide.
But our trek up the rickety stairs had taken us into a bubble of quiet, with no jolt of noise through the open windows, not a sound in the tranquil room save for the subdued conversation of a deliciously-laden table, the clink of silver-on-china, the murmurs as the crisp-uniformed waitstaff attended to their guests.
We finished our coffee, lifted our heavy napkins once again to our lips, and made our stunned way down the stairs into the almost-starry evening. We must have gone through another door on our way out, for I don't remember passing through the crowd or the noise. The slow, sated stroll back to our hotel took us past pubs, realty offices, sidewalk cafes with music and loudness, bookstores and boarded-up doors and faded signs with quaint names straight out of Dickens or Trollope.
We’d been Somewhere, but not in and of that bustly street---those creaky stairs had led to another place, and perhaps on our exit, they swiveled or swayed like a Hogwarts’ flight, sliding upward or over to another plane entirely, leaving that lovely evening in the hands of memory.