I am the only person in the restaurant wearing a checked shirt. I thought I'd dress up a bit, no slobby jeans and casual top, but I fear I may have judged wrongly. I've come dressed for Shoreditch, but everyone else appears to have come straight from the City. Smart suits, power-blouses and shiny shoes are the order of the day, mostly in solemn black, so my semi-decent attempt at sartorial elegance looks very out of place.
BestMate reassures me that the restaurant was nigh empty the last time he was here. Not tonight. Every table, every sofa, every gap at the bar is taken, by a collective of bankingfolk continuing the business of the day. Even if the conversation's more informal than official, it'll oil the wheels of commerce when the markets reopen in the morning. I realise how fortunate I am that my job finishes when I leave the office. Many of these financial whizzkids are here out of obligation, not a desire to be sociable.
I'm wearing trainers, for heaven's sake. Fairly smart trainers, nothing I've previously walked down a muddy footpath, but nobody else in the building would have dreamed of turning up in anything less than leather. It's strange how a couple of miles, or even a few walls, can completely change the expectation of what punters inside a venue should be wearing. In E1 I'm sure I'd have got away with smart trainers and plaid. But the suits in Investment Country are no doubt thinking "who is that oik?", even if only surreptitiously.
We're dining out on one of the Evening Standard's special annual cut price restaurant offers. For a half-decent price we'll have a three course meal and a glass of champagne, probably for considerably less than then the party quaffing on oysters and fizz at the table alongside. It's bonus season in the City, which would explain the preponderance of post-office ladies and gentlemen splashing out some of their six figure windfall on booze or an epicurean blowout. I feel so utterly out of place standing at the bar, but the opportunity to people-watch is irresistible.
Cocktails... those'll help us fit in... so we both skim down the slimline menu of classics and house specials. I plump for a glass of ice with fruit juice and a kick, while BestMate ends up with much the same but in a differently shaped glass. I haven't eaten anything since lunch, so I'm very impressed when a micro-pot of mixed nuts appears on the counter beside us, whereas the top inch of my over-priced glass probably paid for the catering pack being slowly emptied in the corner of the bar.
We make an unspoken faux pas as we pay for our drinks, waving an actual banknote and handing it over the bar. Everyone else is on plastic, tapping in a few numbers at regular intervals, or piling up their credit for one final reckoning at the end of the evening. We get a single coin in change - one gets the feeling the staff don't deal with coins very often - but there's gratitude when we hand the coin straight back as a tip. When in doubt, pay twice.
That couple over there, he in the dark suit and her in the sophisticated dress, they're not husband and wife are they? He's all over her, increasingly so as more alcohol is consumed, while she gazes back with unspent wilful desire. It's the culture round here to work late at the office, but these two look like they'll be engaged in more than secretarial duties before the evening's out. Meanwhile the woman beside us is hunched up across two footstools, laptop open, furiously keeping in touch with her inbox via wifi. She has a very different night-time relationship with her manager, less physical, but still persistently intertwined.
A different career, a different set of priorities, and I could have been a financial whirlwind rounding off the day with a succession of celebratory glasses. Instead I'm the interloper here, ill-versed in share options and high yield bonds, marked out by my misplaced urban uniform. The waitress wanders over to invite us to our table, where the el cheapo menu is produced. We leave the dealers, the revellers and the canoodlers at the bar. The City, it's true, never sleeps.