Faking it

First impressions. They’re so powerful. In seconds we think we know whether we’re going to like or dislike someone we see for the first time. Or somewhere.

Sometimes it’s hard to put your finger on exactly what it is that turns that impression one way or another. Other times, it might be something you’re fully aware of, a detail that you look for like a sign, sending you a message of what to expect, rightly or wrongly.

That’s me when it comes to places to get something to eat. As soon as I walk in, I find myself staring at stuff, for a bit too long and a bit too intensely. At surfaces. Not to see whether they’re clean or not (as important as that may be), but what they’re made of. Whether they’re real.

It’s not that I’m paranoid, wary of invisible forces trying to deceive me everywhere I look. I have my reasons. As to whether they’re good reasons or not, I’ll leave it up to you to decide.

Let’s say you walk into a place that straight away looks nice and cosy. A few seconds later you start noticing some of the details. The floor is lino but is designed to look like wooden floor boards. One of the walls is made of brick – no, in fact it’s a tiled veneer. There are nice plants around – plastic ones. And then there’s a fireplace with fake logs and fake flames (though the heat it’s giving out could be real).

One can understand. Solid wood parquetry costs a fortune. And why build a brick wall in front of the perfectly good one that’s already there, when you just want the look of it? Plants take maintenance, and you don’t have a green thumb. And a real log fire is of course out of the question for all sorts of reasons, starting with the fact that there’s no chimney. But the ambiance they create, who doesn’t love that?

I shouldn’t give any of it a second thought. But I do. There is a question that nags me. If what I see around me is fake, what can I expect of the food and drink I’m about to order?

It might look good when it’s served, but we can’t see who made it, how it was made and where those ingredients came from, so my mind goes wondering. Just as my eye wanders off the plate to the shiny imitation wood grain pattern on the laminated table top.

We were lucky with The Stray Bean. It’s in an old 18th century building ; most of the decisions about what materials to use came down to stripping back all the surfaces and seeing what was underneath. We found floorboards, stone pillars and a wall that’s made of I don’t know what – layers of wallpaper and paint and plaster – but it’s old and it looked great when we scrubbed it up. We brought in equipment and furniture (some picked up from second-hand markets) made of solid things : wood, blackened steel, stainless steel, glass…

Not a veneer in sight. It’s the real stuff. Just like our cappuccinos.

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