For the past 14 months, food critic Ed Cumming has pretended that restaurants don’t exist. Now he’s back and raring to go – just as long as he remembers to wear trousers
“Table 16. I think I remember where that is,” says the waiter as he checks our reservation and shows us inside. Table 16 is a lonely spot behind a pillar and next to the loo. We couldn’t be happier. I turn to my brother-in-law. “Pleased to be back?” Evidently, I had forgotten the art of interesting conversation, as well as everything else.
We’re in the only pub in a little Cornish village, but it might as well be the Tour d’Argent with our level of excitement. Enjoyable as it has been in recent weeks to eat meals in the freezing rain, in a maritime North Atlantic climate there are advantages to being indoors. From the hubbub in the background, I sense the other diners agree. That’s one of the things I’ve missed, I realised. Hubbub, and the tinkle of cutlery.
For most of the past 14 months I’ve pretended restaurants don’t exist. I realise that’s probably not what food writers are supposed to say. Many of my colleagues have been nobly keeping the flame alive, tramping to every woebegone hatch or pop-up, testing “innovative” takeaways and “finish at home kits” and the countless other ingenious solutions that have kept struggling businesses afloat. I haven’t. I’ve found it all too depressing. Aside from Big Jo, which is round the corner from my house and which I’ve been to every day since it opened, I’ve hardly darkened a restaurant’s door.
I did try one or two of those kits. Even when the food was good, I always had the vague sense I was being swindled. If it’s easy enough for me to cook at home, I’d rather do the shopping myself. If it’s too complicated for a domesticated orangutan to manage, I’d rather pay a chef. Why was I paying the same price as I would in the restaurant, when I had to light and heat the room, provide my own cutlery, serve myself and, worst of all, do the washing up?
Without their starry setting, soft lighting and obsequious presentation, some dishes were horribly exposed. In their intended setting they might be Instagram-ready masterpieces, but in their sad little Tupperware on my kitchen table, next to the loo-roll I hadn’t unpacked, they were exposed as overwrought nonsense.
At the other end of the spectrum, I think Deliveroo and its rivals are a mostly malign force on restaurants. A vanishingly small number of dishes travel well, mostly curry and pizza and definitely not fried chicken. Ordering McDonalds to my house is a moral Rubicon I’m not prepared to cross. Besides, the whole point of restaurants is that they force people to put trousers on and sit in communal spaces, try new things, show off and flirt or at least adhere to basic standards of etiquette. Without all that, what’s the point?
Aside from anything else, I had run out of things to talk about. So much mealtime chat depends on at least one of you having been out foraging for facts and gossip. I would catch myself telling my wife a story, remember I’d told her the same story the day before, realise she knew but was letting me carry on, and repeat the story anyway. What would the alternative be? Sitting in silence until every Covid variant had run its course?
In other words, I’ve been lazy. But in recent weeks something changed. The moment outdoor dining was allowed again, some friends lured me out to The Marksman in Hackney. The set menu was fine but ordering pints on a heated terrace was incredible. Then I went for lunch at Rochelle Canteen in Arnold Circus, a walled garden where happy waiters brought endless rounds of golden-fried cod’s cheeks while Margot Henderson attended to the steaks on her Big Green Egg.
Last weekend I went back to Peckham Bazaar, where the chefs have obviously spent their time practising. If every country on earth was on the red list, you could still go there and feel you’d driven from Belgrade to Split with a fat uncle. There were crisp fillets of John Dory on a heap of glistening orzo, silky studded with mussels. Courgette fritters came crunchy out of the fryer, adana kebabs smoky from the charcoal grill. By the end of the meal, I was feeling generous enough to order a digestif for the table, forgetting that in London this amounted to £9 a head. How did we ever afford socialising? It wasn’t as good as eating inside, but it was certainly a start.
All of a sudden, now we can sit indoors, I am raring to go. At last, I’ll get to Cafe Deco, in Bloomsbury, to see what my Instagram has been banging on about. I’m fleeing London for Somerset next weekend to see what Merlin Labron-Johnson’s doing at Osip. Then on to the Bank Tavern in Bristol for what I am assured is the best Sunday lunch in the country.
I’m planning other trips: to taste Nuno Mendes’ menu at the Rose in Deal and Arizona tacos at Rafa’s Diner in Glasgow. I’m promised the Corbin & King fish spot, Manzi’s, will open this autumn. There are whispers that Soho is coming back to life. As harsh as the pandemic has been on so many, it may also create opportunities for businesses that were priced out of central London before. Whether the new spots will be enough to lure the staff back from their homes in Europe is another question.
Restaurateurs are gluttons for punishment at the best of times. No industry more consistently demonstrates the triumph of hope over experience. You have a great idea, work unbearable hours for no money, and then even if you are the reincarnation of Escoffier and Elizabeth David, it’s 50/50 whether you go bust in six months. Going to a restaurant is always a vague act of hope, too, even if it’s simply hoping that the food isn’t as bad as it was last time.
At the pub, we ate burgers and calamari and steaks and sticky toffee pudding as though it was our last meal. Everything was delicious, seasoned by the joy of being back, eating in society. After the year we’ve had, we’re all entitled to daydream. The restaurants are waiting. You just have to find your trousers and think of something to talk about.