Just after 1:00 in the morning, two blondes stood at the counter of Empire in their rhinestone-studded heels ordering cheese-laden late night fare. A man outside the door asked passersby to hold his already-lit cigarette so that he could walk into the establishment and not waste a single drag. “96!” hollered a voice from behind a shoulder-high deli counter holding sauces, cheeses, and other sandwich-type fare. “Would you like any sauce?”
The evening began five hours earlier in the kitchen of my new flat about twenty minutes outside the little university town of St Andrews on the windy coast of Scotland. I was slipping on shoes and earrings as the doorbell heralded the entrance of three ladies dressed for bars but bundled to the brim in wool and all-weather coats, a carrot cake wearing nothing but a thin outer layer of cardboard that read “Fisher and Donaldson,” and a bottle of champagne with no protection from the mist and gales of a January evening. All enthusiastically tumbled into the kitchen in a sea of conversation to greet my flatmates and introduce the carrot cake to the red velvet cupcakes that my flatmates had baked for the evening. Outer layers filled the sofas and chairs of our little kitchen, knives and forks awaited the opportunity to encounter the cake, and the cork departed from the champagne bottle with the happiest of popping sounds.
Soon, giddy conversation engulfed the small space, and plastic champagne flutes collided with dull clinks in toasts. As the champagne poured, so did other concoctions: a failed attempt at Jell-O shots ended abruptly after we realized that they hadn’t yet set, G&T’s pierced the wintry atmosphere with their summer nostalgia, and White Russians— made with £4 knock-off Bailey’s instead of Kahlua—washed down bites of cake in a creamy spiked version of a childhood dream. Two layers of dense, rich carrot cake enrobed in its traditional cream cheese icing with an immaculate cream cheese-to-sugar ratio invited us to cut more slivers from its flesh. Red Sugar crystal sprinkles gleamed under the fluorescent lights and beamed up at us from the faces of the cupcakes. I had at my fingertips the happiest of drinks and the happiest of desserts for the happiest of occasions: my twentieth birthday. In turn, I hugged everyone in the room whom I had met only a little over a week before upon arrival in Scotland.
A walk into town produced a wind-blown, bone-chilled gaggle that clattered up two flights of stairs to a bar beside an old movie theater and clamored around a table as wide as a Mississippi River raft in the back of the space. After a long discussion of drink choice, we decided to split pitchers of Long Island iced tea. Almost immediately, three tall vessels sporting three straws each and sloshing with dark and ominous liquid arrived. We sipped them as we swapped views on university life, discussed the process of licensing drivers, and the Scots distinguished between our American accents—A Midwesterner, a New Englander, and a Virginian who hasn’t absorbed the culture of my Great Native State all sound alike to a Scot, but they discern the voice of a Californian and another of a Virginian steeped in the ethos of the Shenandoah Valley from the rest. Those who had chosen the university here as their academic home insisted that those of us visiting for a semester try a Pablo after we had finished the conversation around the casks of Long Island iced tea, so off we went to try the signature drink of St Andrews.
We pushed our way into a space in the bar at the student union. Forget the saying “standing room only” because the dark room swam with eighteen-to-twenty somethings out for Saturday night drinks: We experienced a phenomenon called “breathing room only.” At last, the bar tender handed us neon blue cocktails in highball glasses. A single sip sent shivers down the spine of a girl who takes her bourbon on the rocks with a little bit of branch. The drink, in its cylindrical package, completely resembled an overgrown blue raspberry Jolly Rancher that had ignored the surgeon general’s warning and remained in a vodka-filled hot tub for more than twenty minutes. Once you drink a Pablo, you check it off the list and never return. We had all sunk into an enclave of tufted leather couches so comfortable that they would have lured us into a Pablo-induced sleep if the noise and energy of the bar hadn’t kept us completely alert. With sticky blue memories clinging to our teeth, we roused ourselves and pushed onward to the ultimate destination: Empire, a temple of late-night greasy takeout.
A phenomenon exists in the UK where bars do not serve anything but alcohol after eight or nine at night. This policy seems rather impractical and disappoints an American who would like nothing more than to nurse a caramel colored drink in an old fashioned glass while spreading pimento cheese on thick slices of baguette. C’est la vie. Instead, little shops on side streets open their doors to welcome tired nightlife into their toasty kitchens until two in the morning. These places serve nothing but deep-fried, cheese-laden carbohydrates and starches. It’s simply wonderful. I ordered cheese fries and shuffled my exhausted feet a few checkered vinyl tiles away to wait. Meanwhile, people in various array running the spectrum of intoxication bustled, stumbled, and caroused through the doors and milled around on the street outside. A pair of blondes in inch-thick makeup and stilettos leaned against the counter to order and a man outside didn’t want to put out his cigarette before he walked inside.
“Would you like any sauce?” the man behind the counter repeated. Almost with an automatic reflex, I responded “mayonnaise, please,” as any good Southerner who lives and dies by the magic of egg whites and vinegar does. A deft hand doused a pile of white Scottish cheddar covering what I assumed were French fries—chips, they call them—with adipose goodness. It was my first Scottish cheddar and my first time purchasing food after 10:00 at night. It wasn’t my mother’s duck cassoulet paired with a Châteauneuf-du-Pape or venison tenderloin and collard greens—dishes that I’ve requested for previous birthdays—but the whole experience of drinks and cake and boundless energy of young people and gooey strands of cheddar coating salt-flecked chips composed a cocktail of an unforgettable birthday. A birthday I had dreaded, the sensation of becoming twenty and a real adult without a sense of direction or stability in sight, had metamorphosed into an occasion full of promise and strenuous celebration. The night lapsed into the next morning, and after I had gone to the gym and cleaned up, we walked back into town for brunch.