The red brick building had stood on the corner since pretty much the beginning of time. Or, at least, that’s what the owners told everyone, since no one could find the original blueprints anymore. It was longer than it was wide, so it appeared smaller outside than it really was on the inside. An orange and white striped vinyl awning hung over the door and showcase windows. Above that was a wooden sign that spelled, in gold curling letters, Little Gallifrey. Bright yellow flowers made the window boxes look cheerful, drawing attention to the slogans displayed proudly on the glass: You don’t have to be telepathic to know our food is good! Try the Lunch Special of Rassilon! You’ll love the lunch buffet - The Bottomless Schism! Kids eight and under eat free!
At their stations in the kitchen stood Rory, a young man with short, sandy hair, aqua eyes, and a slightly prominent nose, and Lucy, a beautiful and slender blonde woman with dreamy blue eyes; Lucy making desserts while Rory made side dishes. Their movements were quick, but meticulous, because they knew nothing less than their best would do. Harry, a perpetually frowning man with neat, cinnamon hair and copper colored eyes, was at the main station, covering a massive, ancient-looking oven-stove combination that was an odd shade of royal blue. He cursed intermittently at the iron contraption as he made main dishes, almost as if he believed the inanimate object was listening and purposefully being difficult. Donna, a ginger woman with eyes like the sea that had a ring of gold at the center, stood at the pass, calling out orders as they came through and checking plates before they went out to Amy and Clara, the wait staff.
Amy, a willowy girl with hazel-green eyes and long, fiery hair, and Clara, a petite girl with dark, slightly wavy hair and eyes like a starless sky, were the best servers in London. Just the right combination of sweet and sassy, they were known for their accuracy, never bringing a dish to the wrong table. They knew the menu inside and out and could always make good recommendations. There was a bit of a friendly rivalry between the two girls as far as tips went, because Clara claimed Amy’s Scottish accent gave her an unfair advantage, but it was all in good fun.
Jack, the bartender who was tall, muscular, broad-shouldered, tan, and gorgeous with violet-blue eyes and hair so dark it was nearly black, was also a licensed sommelier and always knew which wine would pair well with what flavors. He could convince someone who didn’t even like wine to try his suggestions and would convert them to a wine lover by the end of the night. He was always coming up with new cocktails, so there was a blackboard to the side of the bar where he could write up his new ‘inventions.’
And that left the Doctor at the front of house, so named for his sheer genius with food. He was a tall, skinny man with wild chestnut colored hair that looked effortlessly tousled and bright milk chocolate eyes, and he handled seating everyone who came in with a wide, charming smile. His well-fitted brown pinstriped suit was always immaculate, which made his well-worn trainers that may have once been white look incongruous. However, with the amount of time he spent on his feet, no one ever criticized his choice of footwear. He never seemed to run out of energy, bouncing on the tips of his toes as he escorted dining parties to their tables. Though he knew the menu by heart (he should, he’d written it), he would always whip out his reading glasses from his jacket pocket to look over someone’s shoulder and point out the specials. For some reason, the ladies (and some of the gentlemen) would always smile and blush when he did that. Well, whatever kept them coming back to eat, was his philosophy.
Little Gallifrey was his restaurant, his dream. He’d started out in a small restaurant in his hometown out in the back of beyond and saved every pound he made in order to have his own place someday. He’d worked his way up from the very bottom, bussing tables and washing plates, to being the head chef, creating his own dishes. That was right before he’d gone into business with Romana, an old school friend who now looked over the books and ordered their ingredients. He’d picked up friends here and there as he worked various restaurants, he had a nose for finding talented people who believed in his cooking. He’d offered them all jobs and the restaurant became popular right away. London loved the Doctor’s food. Sometimes he missed being in the kitchen, but he really enjoyed working the front of house. It was such an amazing feeling, to watch people enjoying the recipes he’d come up with. He felt like he had his finger on the pulse of the restaurant, something he wouldn’t have if he was stuck behind a stove.
As a whole, the restaurant lacked a bit of polish. The industrial carpet was grimy from messy patrons, and the fake ivy stapled to the wooden trellis on the walls was impossible to get entirely dust-free. The pictures on the walls were washed out generic prints of fruit and vegetables, in garish fake gold frames. The candles in the center of the tables dripped their wax over empty wine bottles, which added to the atmosphere, but came across as slightly sloppy, despite the fact that everything, from the tables to the plates, was always clean.
But the customers didn’t come for the ambience. They came for the food, which was always beyond brilliant.
On a sunny afternoon, the door opened on its squeaky, groany hinge that was as much a part of the place as the bricks. Rose Tyler, a curvy young blonde with eyes the color of dark topaz, shucked her pink hoodie as she walked up to the hosting station as she had nearly every day since Uni. A half smile quirked her lips as she realized the Doctor wasn’t beaming at her in his usual manic fashion. Something had to really be bothering him if he wasn’t giving his signature smile, but then, he knew he didn’t have to put up the facade with her anymore.
She’d been coming to Little Gallifrey for years, since she was still just a shop girl living with her mum and having to save for meals out that were anything fancier than chips. She’d met the Doctor back on one of her chip runs, they’d literally bumped into each other and her food had ended up all over the pavement. She’d given him an earful for spoiling her dinner, and he’d insisted he’d done her a favor, that she should never eat such sub-par food. He’d grabbed her hand and pulled her into the back of what would soon be his restaurant and proceeded to fry up some of the best chips Rose had ever eaten. She’d come back every day ever since, quickly becoming one of his regular (and she hoped one of his favorite) patrons. More than a patron, she hoped he considered her a friend, after two years of her eating at the restaurant. She’d enjoyed watching him bloom as a restaurant owner as the cafe became a more and more successful neighborhood staple.
She tapped a finger on the wooden hosting stand, seeking his attention. “What’s got our dander up, today?” she asked him, teasingly.
He looked up, his eyes brightening as he recognized her, but the frown stayed put on his lips. “Rose, look at this!” he said, not even bothering with the traditional ‘hello, welcome to Little Gallifrey’ she’d heard so many times. He shook the morning edition of the paper at her. “This is disgusting!”
She yanked her head back to avoid getting a faceful of newspaper and grabbed his wrist. “Oi, stop shaking it at me, I can’t read it with you flapping it in my face like that. What’s disgusting?”
“It’s Bad Wolf!” he said, his lower lip sticking out in a pout.
Rose rolled her eyes and let go of his wrist, no longer needing to see what had him so upset. “What about him? Did he say something about Little Gallifrey?”
“No! She never does!”
“Yeah, yeah, I know,” said Rose, waving a hand to indicate he could stop while he was ahead, but as usual, he charged into his spiel about the popular food critic for at least the fiftieth time.
“I have no idea how you can argue with me on this,” he said, punctuating his statement by jabbing a finger at the newsprint. “All that passion and zest in the writing, that flair for description, talking not just about the way food tastes, but how it makes her feel, and that hint of warmth and sweetness behind the pen - there’s just no way Bad Wolf is a man!”
Rose tried, unsuccessfully, to hide her smirk at his impassioned speech. He spoke of Bad Wolf as if they were a saint, a culinary god (or goddess, in this case). She reached across the podium and patted his cheek in a mocking fashion, “Aww, you’re so cute!” she chirped, “Look at you, with your crush on the big bad mysterious food critic!”
He jerked away from her, straightening up from where he’d been leaning on the podium. The tips of his ears pinked as he tried for a scowl, but the fact that he was still pouting a bit hampered his attempt. “I do not have a crush! I have a-- a-- a healthy respect! For someone who appreciates the art of a good meal!” He nodded decisively, but Rose just shook her head. He waved the newspaper in the air again. “And she chooses to review this garbage instead of Little Gallifrey? Dalek-table.” He spat out the name of the rival cafe with disgust. “An awful play on words for an awful restaurant!” He folded the paper messily and stashed it under the podium with short, jerky movements. “At least Bad Wolf agrees with me about the food there,” he added with a little grin. “She says they were ‘out to exterminate her taste buds!’” He quickly wiped the smile off his face as Rose gave him a knowing look. “Not that I memorized the article or anything! I just… have a very good memory!”
“Whatever you say, lover boy,” she said, grinning unrepentantly. “Now, may I please come in and order my lunch?”
“Oh, alright,” he groused, trying to hide a smile as he stepped out from behind the station and turned his gaze into the restaurant, grabbing a plastic-coated menu from the stack without even looking. “Let’s see… Will it be a table or the bar today?”
Rose pursed her lips for a second or two, considering. “The bar, I think, I haven’t had a good chat with Jack in a bit.” She side-eyed the Doctor as they walked in that direction, unable to resist another good tease, ”Besides, then I won’t have to look at the monstrosities you call table linens.”
The Doctor’s mouth dropped open in affront. “Now, now, be fair! Red-and-orange check is original! No other restaurant in London is daring enough to try anything half so bold!”
She giggled. He was always so protective of his restaurant and she loved it. “Yeah, I wonder why that is?” she asked, sarcastically, as she slid into the seat she customarily took when eating at the bar.
“Well, there’s no need to be rude about it-- “ he started.
“Being rude is more your strong suit anyhow,” she broke in, grinning at him with her tongue caught between her teeth.
“Hmph, well, I can tell when I’m not wanted,” he sniffed. “I’ll just leave you to your meal and the dubious charms of Jack, then, shall I?” He smoothly left the menu at her elbow, gave her a nod, and walked back toward the front of the restaurant.
Rose shook her head again as she turned to face the bar, smiling at Jack as he finished the drink he was pouring. He handed it off to Amy before sashaying over to her end of the bar. “Rosie!” he exclaimed. “Long time no see, beautiful!”
“Oh, shush, you,” Rose said, waving her hand at him. “You see me every day, and you know it.” Even so, she gave him a fond smile as he leaned toward her from his side of the bar with a wide grin. It wouldn’t be a trip to her favorite restaurant without a good flirt from Jack.
“Too true, but you don’t always sit over here where I can gaze upon you so freely!” He placed a hand over his heart dramatically and pretended to swoon, which made her giggle. “So, are you finally going to take me up on that drink?” he asked, only half-jokingly.
“Jack,” she started in a low warning tone, “we’ve discussed this…”
“I know, I know,” he interrupted with a good-natured nod. “We’re just friends.”
“That’s right.” She relaxed back into her customary grin, settling down in the cushy bar seating. “So, what’s on special for today? Other than your charming self, of course.”
“Well, other than me, I guess the next best thing today is the Pythia Oyster Special,” he caught himself at her arched eyebrow, remembering her comment about slimy bogeys, and continued on, hurriedly, “or, um, the flank steak with steamed baby veggies and herbed butter on a bed of jasmine rice.”
“Can’t I get chips instead?” she asked, wistfully. “The menu’s gotten so upscale over the years, and don’t get me wrong - it’s all wonderful! Sometimes, though, a girl just wants something simple, ya know?”
Jack smiled warmly at her. “I’ve always said you were a woman after my own heart, Rosie. It’s just too bad you’re not after anything else of mine!” He hopped back with a laugh as Rose leaned over the bar and scooped some lime wedges out of the garnish tray, tossing them at him and giggling. “Hey, hey!” he cried, holding up his hands to ineffectively block the projectiles. “I’m adding that to your bill!”
“Whatever! Stop attempting to be charming and go put my order in already! I’m starved!” she commanded with a mock glare as she dropped back into her seat.
Jack straightened up with a smart salute. “Yes, ma’am, right away, ma’am, flank steak with chips coming right up, ma’am!” he said, then jauntily swaggered off toward the kitchen. He was back moments later, tapping Rose’s hand as she reached back into the garnish tray for some cherries to eat. “So, I couldn’t help but overhear the Doctor griping at you about Bad Wolf’s new article,” he said in an undertone as he uncorked a fresh bottle of Rose’s favorite wine.
Rose made a face at him. “I think the whole block might have heard him,” she muttered, biting a cherry off of its stem.
“Ever gonna tell him?”
She shushed him, glancing over her shoulder, but no one else was nearby. The other patrons eating and talking covered their conversation. “You said you wouldn’t say anything,” she whispered.
Jack had helped her one night when her purse had fallen off the bar. Her notes from her latest critique were written all over the small pad he’d picked up. It hadn’t taken a genius for him to figure out that she was the Bad Wolf.
“I haven’t, and I won’t,” said Jack. He set the chilled white wine in front of her. “But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t tell him. He’s read your book, you know.”
Rose made another face at that comment and bit into another cherry. The book generated a lot of good income, but she hated when chefs treated it like the Bible of restauranteurism.
Jack continued to plead his case, “The man is tortured by the knowledge that his favorite food critic hasn’t ever stepped foot inside his restaurant. Or, he thinks she hasn’t.”
Rose leaned her head back and groaned. “But Jack, I need a place to eat where I can just be me. I’m so sick of having to micro-analyze every bite of food I put in my mouth. I just want to enjoy it, is that too much to ask? And as soon as a critique is published, you know what happens. The tourists completely overrun whichever place I wrote about!It’s so commercial, and it kills all the original charm, and I’m so tired of it.” Jack crossed his arms and Rose sighed. “You know I love Little Gallifrey and I want it to be as successful as it can be, but the Doctor would treat me differently if he knew. And I would hate that most of all.”
Jack lifted an eyebrow. “Oh, really?”
She glared at him. “You know what I mean.”
He smirked. “Yes, I think I do.”
He closed his mouth, but noted the blush on Rose’s cheeks with not a little pleasure. Suddenly, there was the clatter of a metal pan hitting the kitchen floor, followed by a stream of muffled cursing.
Jack rolled his eyes as a woman’s voice joined in a moment later. “I’d better go play referee,” he said to Rose, who nodded.
“Check on my order while you’re in there,” she said as he walked around the bar.
“Ha, ha,” he said, without humor. He walked through the swinging door and put his hands on his hips, frowning at Donna and Harry, who were oblivious in the midst of their argument. “What’s going on in here?” he asked, lifting his voice above the shouting.
“It’s the bloody stove’s fault,” Harry was saying. “It does it on purpose! When it’s not burning me out of spite!” He said the last with a withering glare at the stove. The fire on the back grill flared, as if sticking out a fiery tongue at the man.
“It doesn’t matter if it was overcooked, undercooked, or bloody raw,” said Donna. “It’s inedible no matter what! That is literally the worst dish I’ve ever tasted! You can’t serve that to our customers!”
“It’s about time I was able to create a dish around here,” Harry griped. “I’m the head chef and none of my food is on the menu!”
“When your food is up to my standards, it can go on the menu,” said the Doctor, who’d sidled in behind Jack. He tilted his head at the bartender. “Jack, go mind front of house for a moment, I’ll deal with this.” He waited until the other man had left the kitchen, then crossed his arms over his chest. “Now, tell me what this is about.”
Donna gestured to a plate of food on the pass. The Doctor easily recognized three filet mignon medallions with some sort of beige sauce. There was a single bite taken out of one of the rounds of steak, which he assumed had been Donna. There was also a saucepan on the floor, the same light colored sauce all over the tile. Rory was already grabbing the mop and bucket from the back, while trying to be as unobtrusive as possible.
The Doctor sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. “And just what is this?” he asked tiredly, gesturing toward the unappealing looking plate and trying not to think about what might be in the sauce.
Harry stood tall with an arrogant look on his face. “That is Steak a la Saxon, an heirloom recipe that’s been passed down in my family for generations!” He smirked at Donna. “I made a few improvements to the recipe, of course, modernized it a bit, and added some much needed pizzazz.”
Donna sneered right back. “If your family’s been eating that for generations, it’s no wonder you’ve turned out to be such a…” she curled her lip in derision as she looked him pointedly up and down, “specimen.” She tossed her ginger hair back over her shoulder, “In fact, I think the true miracle is that more than one generation survived eating that poisonous mess!”
Harry took a menacing step toward Donna, and the Doctor stepped between them, holding up a hand. “Wait, wait,” he said. The last time he’d let them have it out, Donna had sent Harry to A&E (though the Doctor suspected he’d been playing up the injury for sympathy). “Let me try it.”
He wanted to be charitable, after all, he never said he didn’t like something unless he tasted it first, but even the appearance of the dish was unappetising. Still, he gamely cut a piece of the steak, which was overdone and tough due to being cooked too long at too low a setting, scooped up some sauce and put it in his mouth.
Instantly, the sour, salty taste of the sauce overpowered the meat, which was difficult to chew. The sauce was lumpy, the butter having separated from the cream from being cooked at too high a heat. “What’s in this?” he asked, unable to determine the source of the salty flavor, even with his impressive taste buds.
“Caviar,” answered Harry, as if it should have been obvious.
The Doctor gagged as he swallowed the bite, praying his stomach would survive and not immediately reject the revolting morsel. “Caviar?” he repeated in a high pitched tone. “Are you mad?”
“That way you can charge fifty pounds per plate!” said Harry. It was plain he thought it was a brilliant plan.
“We can’t serve this,” the Doctor declared. “No one would eat this!”
Harry scoffed. “You’re just so hung up on your own food, you won’t even give me a shot! You can’t even recognize good food anymore if it’s not your recipe! I’ll bet plenty of people would order it, it’s a high class dish! Might even bring some better clientele into the restaurant.”
The Doctor frowned. He didn’t like being accused this way, Harry was being unreasonable. “You think it’s just me and Donna, then, eh?” he asked. “A regular person would definitely eat this?”
Harry nodded. “Definitely.”
“All right.” The Doctor picked up the plate and discarded the meat that he and Donna had cut into, leaving the one untouched round piece. “Come on, let’s get an opinion from someone who really knows our food and is a regular person.”
He carried the plate out into the dining room and headed for the bar, where Rose still sat, popping maraschino cherries into her mouth. “Hello again!” he said, a little too brightly to cover his nerves. “I’ve brought your lunch!” He slid the plate in front of her, then reached under the bar to get her a set of flatware and a serviette.
Rose looked at the Doctor, Harry, and Donna, then down at the… meal… in dismay. “This is definitely not what I ordered,” she said, shaking her head emphatically. “In fact, I’m not even sure what this is.” The scent wafting up from the plate was making her lean away as unobtrusively as possible as she gave the Doctor a confused look.
The Doctor sighed deeply. “I know, Rose, believe me, I know, but would you do us a favor and give it a taste? The kitchen is insisting that I have a ‘regular person’ render an opinion.” He jerked his head back over his shoulder, indicating Harry.
Rose looked beyond the irritated cook and saw the curious faces of Rory, Amy, Clara, and Lucy, all crammed together and peering at them from the window in the swinging door to the kitchen. Rose blinked at the tableau in the window, then at Donna and Harry standing behind the Doctor, giving her expectant looks. She was fairly certain who was demanding the ‘taste test.’ With a little sigh, she cut a small piece of the steak, noting that it was gray from being overcooked, not a hint of pink, and tried it with the sauce.
She gave it all of two chews before spitting it out onto the plate, making a nauseated face. Harry looked aghast.
“What horrid manners!” he snapped.
The Doctor glared at him for making such a remark to Rose, a patron. “She can act however she likes!” he said, but Rose held up a hand, not cowed at all.
“Doctor, please,” she said, calmly, before turning a cold stare on Harry. Stiffly, she told him, “I love food. And if I don’t love it, I don’t swallow.”
From behind her at the hosting podium, Jack snorted, loudly. Rose knew the line was from a popular kids’ film, but it had taken Jack’s reaction for her to, belatedly, realize exactly how what she’d said could be construed. She chanced a glance up at the Doctor, whose face had gone red to the tips of his ears. He cleared his throat and picked up the plate, shoving it at Harry.
“I think you have your answer. Better luck next time, mate.” He made to move away from the bar, but Harry grabbed him by the sleeve of his jacket.
“No!” Harry insisted. He looked back at Rose, challenge in his eyes. “I want to know what she really thinks! What an unsophisticated palate can tell me.”
She glared at the glorified fry cook. Unsophisticated? Ha! “For starters, the sauce overpowers the flavor of the steak, if there was any flavor to be had, you’ve cooked it to death! It’s practically shoe leather! Second, the sauce is separated. It’s lumpy, gritty, and just generally unappealing. Third, what did you do, upend the salt shaker? Please don’t tell me you put caviar in a white sauce--”
She sucked in a breath as she looked from Harry to the Doctor and back. Confusion was written large on their faces and no wonder. Plain Rose Tyler shouldn’t know all those things about food! “Um…” She sniffed and regretted it, because she caught the smell of the dish again. “It just seems… you know… gross and stuff. Salty. Like the ocean. So, fish eggs makes sense, right? That’s caviar, yeah?” She cleared her throat, awkwardly. “And anyway, eating lunch shouldn’t remind me that something’s died.”
“Well, that’s the silliest thing I’ve ever heard,” Harry muttered as he started back toward the kitchen. “Unless you’re a vegan, then practically everything you eat is something that’s died…”
It was clear he’d dismissed her opinion already and Rose inwardly breathed a sigh of relief. Donna patted the Doctor on the back and followed after Harry. The peanut gallery at the window had already dispersed.
The Doctor stayed at the bar, looking speculatively at Rose. “You really know a lot about this,” he said.
She laughed, maybe a little too loudly. “Oh, no, it’s just… I’m here all the time. You should start paying me a wage, I’m really learning from you!”
He scoffed, but smiled. “I’m sorry about this. Really, I am so sorry. But Harry was insisting and I couldn’t have someone else thinking that this was our regular level of service! I knew you’d understand.” He gave her a warm smile and placed a hand over hers.
Rose’s breath caught in her throat. Had he ever looked at her so sweetly before, with such gratitude? How had she never seen the flecks of gold in his dark eyes? She looked down at their hands, admiring his long fingers, his smooth, warm skin, the slight calluses on his fingertips from burning himself on a hot pan. She tingled where he was touching her, and it was just her hand! Something silken curled low in her belly, easily pushing away all thoughts of hunger. Well… for food, anyway.
“I think you should make it up to me,” she said, her voice slightly hoarse. She cleared her throat, giving him her usual smile, but it still felt like her normal teasing had taken a decidedly flirty turn. “I think my tongue might be traumatized.”
“Well, I definitely wouldn’t want anything to happen to your… tongue…” He realized that he was staring at her mouth and straightened up, blinking rapidly as he pulled his hand away. At once, he missed the feel of her hand in his. He rubbed his fingertips together, distractedly.
“Why don’t you cook for me?” she said, suddenly.
He goggled at her. “Me?”
“Yeah,” she said, warming to the idea. “I miss your cooking. Your chips were the first thing I ever ate here.”
He smiled nostalgically. “How could I ever forget. But then, if I was stuck in the kitchen, we’d never have all of our lovely conversations.”
“Can’t have that. Our talks are half the reason I keep coming back here.”
“Really?” he asked, looking pleased.
She ducked her head, tucking a strand of her hair behind one ear. “Well, yeah. I’d like to think we’re sort of… friends now. Aren’t we?” That electrifying touch they’d shared was seared on Rose’s mind. She tried to push those thoughts away. Surely, that sort of thing could happen just between friends… right?
“Yeah,” he said, his voice gone a bit soft. “I mean, I’d like that, too.” He clapped his hands together, startling her. “All right, I will. I’ll cook for you. Give me some time and I’ll prepare a special menu, just for you. And today’s lunch is on the house. Least I can do for that travesty of a dish.”
She grinned. “Careful, Doctor, don’t want the other patrons to think you’re showing favoritism.”
“Oh, let them. You are my favorite… patron.” He looked down, rubbing the back of his neck, then pulled on his ear. “Erm… Sunday night? After closing?”
“Sounds perfect. I can’t wait to see what you come up with for me.” And she truly meant that. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d so looked forward to a meal.
“Me either!” he said, laughing a bit. “Could just make it up as I go along!”
“No, that could be disastrous!” she said, laughing a bit with him.
“Oh, but I do it so brilliantly!” he insisted, grinning at her. His eyes strayed to the bar top, where he saw a neat little row of cherry stems tied into knots lined up next to Rose’s wine glass. His throat worked as he swallowed, hard. He retreated, aiming a thumb at the hosting podium. “Anyway! I’d better… get back to it. Let Jack tend the bar.”
“Right, yeah,” said Rose, nodding, wondering what could have made him blush again.