Tuesday, April 13, 2021
Home LILE & STYLE Food The reopening of restaurants feels like chaos, but at least there's a...

The reopening of restaurants feels like chaos, but at least there’s a bar | Grace Dent on restaurants

Restaurants are go! I’m back in the game. I can return to using my posh pans purely for decorative purposes and opening my fridge to find just a two-day-old doggy bag and a kilo of dissolving carrots. Phew. I can even eat dinner in three specific courses, rather than loading a plate with colliding items: a Quorn sausage, some olives from a jar, leftover takeaway flatbread and hummus that has a partial beard. Dinner will have shape again and, afterwards, the plates will be whisked away. Also – and this will be the best part for some – we can dine with other people again. Sure, there may be bits of Perspex and face masks dotted about the place, but overlook that: 4 July has the vibe of Whitehall slapping the opening chords of Thin Lizzy’s The Boys Are Back In Town on the jukebox.

Clearly, there are new rules, so I began digesting the 47 pages of government guidelines that will allow us this freedom. Then I realised that’s all they are: guidelines. Yards and yards of them, and none of them obligatory or legislated for. Instead, restaurateurs have been put in charge, with a little help from the local authority overlooking the grand comeback in much the same way as they check food hygiene standards. This feels like chaos, but at least it’s chaos with an serving bar, which is the epitome of Britishness. Our fine nation is built on centuries of wild ideas, blind optimism and half-baked plans fuelled largely by daytime drinking.

Obviously, the more delicate, touchy-feely question – the one we’re possibly too scared to ask each other – is: “Are you brave enough to come out?” Brave, foolhardy, nonchalant, keen to get back to normal – whatever you wish to call it. These people will be the first bums on seats, buying marked-up wine, ordering extra fries for the table, paying service charges and flourishing their wallets in myriad ways that may keep some restaurants afloat over the summer. I worry more, however, for the other camp, the quietly-staying-puts and the possibly-too-embarrassed-to-say section of society. All those people who have been scared witless for months by stark thoughts about mortality, germ spread and second waves; the diners for whom restaurants will never again feel safe enough. Nor will any journey to dinner on public transport, let alone the return leg home accompanied by strangers swaying tipsily.

As I booked a table for the big comeback, in central London, where the roads will be closed off and the government seems to have set the whole vibe to that of the 2012 London Olympics’ Super Saturday, the emails I sent my friends were open-ended and tentative. They were less, “When are we having dinner?” and more a gentle, “If you would like to join me, this is where I will be, and possibly you could come along? If it’s too early for all this, I understand.”

Some people replied with alacrity, champing at the bit for a couple of bottles, a proper entrée, a pudding and a good gossip, while others were more furtive. I have daily conversations with my mother – 105 days in the house now, and counting – who demands to be set free to eat scones, but also rejects my every suggestion as too cramped, too large or too prone to coach parties. Her freedom has been granted, but in her head I fear she’ll be forever trapped.

As a restaurant critic, I’ve decided, possibly controversially, to live without fear and to treat death as an occupational hazard. I’ve hidden for months, but it has given me time to think. Death bothered me little in my youth; there was danger all around, but I went out every night and just assumed I was probably immortal. I rode mopeds across Ibiza and set out for -1C, sideways-sleet nights in Cumbria in a mini-skirt with bare legs. I spent years on smoking terraces breathing in everyone’s fumes, drank way more than the recommended daily units of alcohol a day and survived a quarter-century of using the bathrooms – hand sanitiser? Ha! – at some of London’s most venerable fleapits. I’m still standing, as Elton said. If the next six months kill me, I want you to know that, when the grim reaper finally caught up, I’d had a lovely three-course lunch beforehand.

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