I don’t do launches. I figure that, if I want to spend an evening milling around awkwardly in a room full of people I have nothing in common with, I’ll go to the Harvey Nichols Beauty Bar.
But something made me do it. Aloft’s NYL Restaurant opened last night and, because I like what they’ve done with the place, I dug out my cufflinks and downed an entire bottle of Rescue Remedy and thought, fuck it, what’s the worst that can happen?
A spinning light projection danced and twirled on the tunnel ventilation shaft opposite Aloft’s North John Street entrance. It was either a welcome or a warning. At this point it was hard to tell.
Aloft’s surefooted reimagining of the Royal Insurance Building – keeping the best of the old, and rubbing it up sharply against metallic new surfaces – puts you in mind of a first class lounge at some Far Eastern Airport. This is a good thing. Chandelier count – zero. This is a very good thing.
The long, sleek bar and grill area is all snug booths, gleaming rows of whiskies and smiley staff. And, following a rethink, the menu’s big on locally reared beef, landed fish, grown veggies. And we’re here to give it all a go. In the hope, one presumes, that we go forth and share. At least, I think that’s the point.
I chat to a lovely PR lady at the bar – there are, approximately, 45 different PR companies handling the hotel’s various floors, functions and events. Each time I go, I small talk away an hour with one or other of them. I like her, she’s from Loch Lomond.
“So who’s coming tonight? Is it all journalists? Any councillors?” I ask, wondering whether to set up a speed dial for my legal team.
“Oh, it’s a good healthy mix,” she says, “there’s celebrities and everything.”
What? Real celebrities? Like Miriam Margolyes and Alan Shearer?
Apparently, the celebrities were all around us. Boys from Emmerdale. Girls from Hollyoaks. Two soap dynasties rubbing up against each other in a lather of Canada Goose parkas and Christian Louboutin heels.
My PR befriender leaves. I’m stuck with a glass of Prosecco, rubbing up with a woman from the local paper and a bloke who I’ve met about 12 times before but can never quite remember where.
And then I know, with every fibre of my being, that I’ve made a bad call.
We’re ushered to our seats, my dining partner arriving just in the nick of time (there are only so many false text conversations you can have before the game’s up).
Suddenly, without warning, our ears start to bleed. From the mezzanine, a DJ begins to pump out late 70s/early 80s NYC Hip Hop, painfully, shockingly, inappropriately loudly. The sort of music that makes everyone who listens to it think they’re a little bit cooler than they actually are. Especially when he drops ‘Rapture’ and the girls from the TV channel do that little finger dance in the air.
Our dining table is less than 60 centimetres deep. I can not talk to my dining partner. We resort to using What’s App and the sort of facial expressions usually reserved for Mr Tumble and the cast of the Carry On films. To my right, a friend from another website pulls me a face. I mug back and shout ‘hello. It’s far too fucking loud!’. She nods. Apparently they’ve had words with the General Manager. I doubt he heard them.
The Hollyoaks table is taking mass selfies. So many, in fact, that you can’t be sure whose arm is whose. A tangled spaghetti of selfies and pouts, to be prodded up to the great social media cloud crackling and sputtering over our heads. Because, of course, tonight is all about them. Not the hand dived scallops, or the small batch gin. THEM.
The TV table ladies are sitting on their local TV lads’ laps, trying to gain audience share, I suppose. The PR and Journos’ tables are telling the world what an amazing time they’re having – and you’re not.
Next up, we’re treated to a live gig by a band seemingly titanium-coated in self-confidence, like they’ve just hotfooted it from doorstepping around city proselytising for the Church of the Latter Day Saints. They smug their way through a setlist of Ed Sheeran and Paulo Nutini, delivering the lyrics like a sermon.
It all seems like such bloody hard work . And I have to hand it to them all. They’re so good at it. Really; it’s me, not you.
Meanwhile, the chef – Northern Ireland’s Chef of the Year – is creating wonderful little plates of food. Most of them allowed to entropy while the lads pop in and out of the toilets and the girls go for a fag.
Like an Ideal World Swiss Army Knife, the night tries to be all-things to all people, a convergence too far. You can’t mix a speakeasy with turned-up-to-11 soul, judiciously plated food with mugging semi-celebs, urban cool with awkward smalltalk.
By now, Voyager is so far away from Earth that its signal-to-noise ratio means it’s hard to make sense of what its experiencing. Before it escaped our Solar System completely, it turned around, and took one final shot of us. A tiny blue dot.
I’m reminded of this when I tuck into my perfectly cooked little slab of fillet, with layered fondant potatoes, crunchy green beans and a vibrant tomato salsa.
“There is intelligent life in this place,” it whispers to me, beneath a deafeningly unnecessary Bob Marley cover, “I’m down here.”
Is there another way to do stuff like this? Is it time to look again at how cool new additions to the city announce themselves? Last night not only reminded me of why I can’t do this stuff, but made me think that there must be a smarter way to engage all of us, instead of just giving another free night out to the glittery entitled few?
What if Aloft bypassed the hoopla, told the Conference League paparazzi outside to stand down, and gave all that food to a food bank? To kids at a local catering college? To Walton Hospital’s patients? Just something different, please.
Really, despite my dinner’s genuine flair and passion, it sort of stuck in my throat.
Sorry if I sound dreadfully ungrateful.
North John Street