François Rabelais was a French writer, an eccentric, and a joker who lived centuries ago. Based on a prank he pulled to get out of paying a dinner bill, the phrase “quarter hour of Rabelais” has come down through history to refer to the unhappy time when diners are confronted with the bill for their restaurant meal.
Personally, I am someone who always has a rough estimate of what I’ll have to pay at the end, so I am scarcely in the same boat as Rabelais. All the more so because I definitely would not go into a restaurant (in his case, an inn) and order a meal knowing I had no money.
But, it is a well known fact that some people order freely – and drink freely – to the point that they have no idea what their total bill will come to. And, in the olden days, there was no written menu so it wasn’t always clear what everything cost.
According to lore, Rabelais was penniless yet ate and drank as though there would be no reckoning. When the bill came, he held up a flask and announced he planned to poison the king with its contents. He was arrested and carried off to the palace. The king took the whole incident as a big joke. An unlikely story if I ever heard one.
Nevertheless the phrase survived and is, or was, well known in France as a moment of letdown when you realize you’ve got to pay the bill. Maybe in modern times credit cards have distanced us from that feeling. Or, is it simply that not that many people sit around restaurant tables drinking all night anymore?
Obviously misery about paying the bill is worsened if the diner is short of money. Or if his or her companions have departed without leaving enough money for their shares – something that can still be counted on to happen from time to time. Perhaps that is a modern example of the “quart d’heure de Rabelais” as it was memorialized in the following bad poetry from 1887.
The question of who pays is an associated issue. Though it isn’t well known, the law considers everyone at the table responsible for the check. If there are four and three leave, and all the orders are on one check, the last person remaining must pay the total bill.
© Jan Whitaker, 2013