It was a sunny Saturday afternoon in London. Sri Lankan Ali, a software engineer with an interest in photography was charming on email and had a cheeky sense of humour. We arranged to meet at the National Portrait Gallery to see the Irving Penn exhibition. Ali arrived early and was waiting inside as we walked in. He greeted us with a big bear hug and a bunch of purple hyacinths. He looked like his picture (not all of them do) and had a gentle, unassuming demeanor.
We made our way around the exhibition (which is excellent by the way). Ali talked us through some of the pictures, sharing his understanding of the artist’s intention. He wasn’t the world’s greatest talker but what he did say was carefully considered and most of the time amusing. After the exhibition, we headed upstairs to the third floor Portrait Restaurant for a cocktail. That’s when it all kicked off.
But first, a word on the venue. The gallery’s roof-top bar and restaurant boast spectacular views of Trafalgar Square, down Whitehall and across to Westminster’s Houses of Parliament. The restaurant is operated by Searcy’s and has a modern British menu. The bar area can accommodate up to about 20 people and always has a buzzy vibe, no matter what time you go in. It is inevitably populated by other people on dates but that’s ok, they’re a well behaved bunch. Compared to the craziness of theatreland outside, it’s an oasis of calm with spectacular views that tourists would relish if they only knew it existed.
We took a seat at the bar and ordered a dry Martini. Ali looked at the drinks menu – which has an impressive section dedicated to the wonderfully English gin and tonic – and chose a raspberry Martini (Stoli Raspberry vodka, raspberry purée and cranberry).
When the drinks arrived, our Martini didn’t look right. An overzealous barman had got carried away with the cocktail shaker and as a result there were shards of ice floating on the surface (watering down the drink and spoiling the flavours, not that we’re fussy…). As we took our first sips, Ali cautioned: “better not tell my brother I’m drinking this”. When we enquired why, he said: “he’s very religious. He moved to Birmingham a year ago and has gone very strange. He makes my mother wear a veil. She didn’t even do that in Sri Lanka”. So, the brother probably wouldn’t be that keen on Ali signing up to Lovestruck or dating a non-believer like The Guide… Let’s move on. “What do you think of the general election?” asked Ali. Erm, um, we hesitated. Where was this one going? “Undecided”, there, that’s a safe answer, isn’t it? “My dad is very involved in politics in Sri Lanka”, he said. Here was an oppotunity for us to change the subject: “so, is your family in London?”, we asked, picking up a conversation that had begun by email. “Yes, just down the road. I see them at least once a week”. As we enquired further, this turned out to be about as watered down as our Martini. Although Ali has his own two-bedroom flat, his mother cooks his meals and neatly packs them in tupperwares for him to take home. His father irons his shirts. 31 and practically still living at home? Was he secretly Italian?!
“Tell me about your job”, he said, “does it pay well?” We fidgeted in our seat. We had arranged to cook for our flatmate in the evening, to avoid any potential awkward dinner invitation (we are becoming dab hands at producing escape clauses on these first dates). “Is that the time?” we asked. We made our excuses and headed back west. Ali went home to watch Dr Who.
Interesting afternoon. There will not be a second date with Ali. We will definitely however go back to the Portrait bar. Just next time we’ll order a gin and tonic and take BFF. Or maybe Mr Fling if he’s ever in town.
Portrait Restaurant, St Martin’s Place, London WC2H 0HE, Tel: +44 20 7312 2490
A Lovestruck date with all the taboos at the National Portrait Gallery
They say there are three topics you should avoid in polite company: religion, politics and money. On our third Lovestruck date which lasted barely two hours, we tackled them all. Ouch. It was a sunny Saturday afternoon in London. Sri Lankan Ali, a software engineer with an interest in photography was charming on email and [...]
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The Guide's Paris correspondent is a lobbyist by day and a world-class, champion cocktail drinker by night. Having devoured almost every Martini in London, like a swarm of alcoholic locusts, she had no choice but to migrate to pastures new. In the summer of 2010 she moved to Paris from where she continues to report on the very best restaurants, bars and nightlife that her adopted city has to offer. Watch out Milan; it’s only a matter of time…
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