THE instructions were clear. Drop the children off at midday for a BBQ, meet back at 3pm for tea and a chance for parents to chat.

On the way into town, I chatted to Greg, another parent. “We were hoping to book somewhere for lunch,” he said. “But it’s Father’s Day. Everywhere is booked up. Can‘t get a table till after 4pm!”

Eating out is big business. As the traditional retail chains abandon our high streets (stalwarts M&S and House of Fraser recently announced extensive closures) restaurants are moving in to take their place.

In Salisbury it was hard not to trip over the A-boards urging passers-by to celebrate Father’s Day eating out. Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, Easter, Father’s Day – the same boards proclaim the same message. Come inside and book a table here for your celebration.

When I was a child, going out for dinner to celebrate was a rare treat. Invariably we went to a hotel (in those days, there was nothing to bridge the gap between the high street Wimpy and the local Trust House Forte). We had prawn cocktail or melon for a starter, steak if we could afford it, and gammon steak (disappointment tempered by the pineapple on top) if we couldn’t.

Nowadays eating out is routine and if you can’t be bothered, a takeaway from your favourite restaurant is just a phone call and an exhausted cyclist away. What was once a luxury has become the everyday. Even fast food is now cheaper than cooking yourself. 20 nuggets and chips are cheaper than buying the equivalent in raw chicken and most pubs serve up a Sunday roast cheaper than you can buy the ingredients… which rather begs the question about the quality of what we’re eating…

So why make the effort?

If eating out is no longer the treat it once was, what is it about eating out on Father’s Day or Mother’s Day or a Birthday that still makes it special? Why do we risk playing food poisoning Russian roulette and put up with poor service in an overcrowded and understaffed restaurant?

It’s the act of eating together that is the attraction. So many meals are grabbed on the go, in front of the TV or eaten separately in scattered families whose members are too busy with their own lives to find time to sit down together.

What restaurants and pubs offer us nowadays is no longer a special eating experience, but a special family experience. A rare occurrence at home; Father’s day (or Mother’s Day or a birthday) is now an almost unique opportunity for everyone to take a break from living their individual lives and live one together. I’m rather glad everywhere was booked…