Eating out: the things we didn’t realise we’d miss – The London Economic

Restaurant News

As the UK passes the milestone of one month in lockdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s fair to say that everyone has had to temporarily adapt to a completely new, minimalist existence. There’s no doubt that it’s very easy, and perhaps tempting, to simply look back at our time in lockdown thus far and mourn the loss of the past month and all the things that we could have been doing had this not all happened. However, it’s far more important to look forward and even reflect on how this otherwise sobering period of time could give us a new found appreciation for the smaller things on the other side.

The restaurant industry has been one of the sectors worst hit by coronavirus due to the closure of these establishments since 20th March. It has been an incredibly worrying time for restaurant owners, not knowing when they will next open their doors again to the public, with some having already closed permanently. Yet for those that survive this period, there is some light at the end of the tunnel. 

While the doors to restaurants remain closed, food lovers’ wish lists of places they need to visit when they reopen, and dishes they need to devour, grow ever longer. Hopefully this means restaurants are likely to see a boom in bookings as soon as they’re given the green light. According to research conducted by mobile order and pay provider Wi5, over half of UK adults say that they will return to restaurants within weeks of them reopening.  

St JOHN Smithfield Bakery by Stefan Johnson
Photo: Stefan Johnson

While the food is obviously a large contributor to people craving a meal out, it’s the less appreciated aspects of the restaurant experience which people are surprised to find they’re missing. Before they closed, it would have been very easy to think of restaurants simply as places you go to enjoy the food, or simply as alternatives to cooking every meal at home, but even with numerous highly regarded spots temporarily offering a takeaway service at the moment, this doesn’t rival being sat down in a cosy French bistro or your local Chinese. So what is it that we’re all hungering for, if it isn’t simply the food?

One of the most obvious things is the ambience of a restaurant. The way a restaurant is designed and decorated, and the feel of the place, is in many cases just as important as what they are serving. It’s what makes any two restaurants, even if they serve similar food, completely different. Stuck at home, it’s impossible to change the atmosphere. So even if you were to order in a different takeaway every single night, the feel of the meal is always going to be very similar. With countless different restaurants in every corner of the UK, the huge amount of variety on offer is something a lot of us take for granted. In effect, outside of lockdown we have the ability to pick a specific dining experience entirely based on how we’re feeling at the time, which is in reality quite a luxury.

Arabica King's Cross interior

An element of ambience which people might have been surprised to have found that they’re missing is having other diners sat nearby. Although the idea of having every meal out in an otherwise empty private dining room may sound appealing initially, the novelty would quickly wear off. The gentle hum of other conversations around you, and seeing other people’s food arrive as you look at the menu and the smell begins to waft over and influence your choice, as well as the classic British pastime of people-watching, contribute more than one might consciously realise to the overall experience. The lockdown has seen people attempt to come up with novel solutions to this lack of surrounding buzz. Some people have gone so far as having friends or family on call during meals to recreate a restaurant atmosphere, but this obviously doesn’t touch the excited murmur of a packed dining room.

Another aspect of dining out taken for granted is the theatre of it all. Things such as ordering from a menu and having a waiter have become normal to us, but without even realising it. These are some of the things which make visiting a restaurant so special. There aren’t many other occasions in life where one gets looked after thoroughly for a prolonged period of time, yet having a waiter is something that is simply assumed most of the time. Add to all of this the whole routine of perusing a menu, choosing from the many different options, having your order taken and then relayed to a mysterious kitchen full of chefs which, most of the time, you never actually see, and then having food arrive in front of you, and there’s something pretty magical about the restaurant experience. When looked at like this, it’s no surprise that people are yearning for their next meal out at the moment, as this isn’t something which can be replicated at home.

Terra Terra Pasta | Photo: Jodi Hinds Food Photographer London
Photo: Jodi Hinds Food Photographer London

While the taste of food is clearly a large factor in any meal out, there are other things which come into play that make restaurant food unbeatable. Direct relationships with suppliers mean that a lot of places have fresh, seasonal produce delivered every morning which is then cooked that day. With people limiting their trips to the shops at the moment, this is far from feasible at home, and even outside of lockdown it can require a fair amount of research to find fish caught the same day you’re buying it. To then have this produce treated with delicacy by people who have been trained to do so, and then have it appealingly presented is undeniably special.

While everyone is stuck at home, with plenty of time to think, it’s easy to think of our next restaurant meals, to realise the specific things we’re missing about restaurants. Wut what’s important is that when everything starts to get back to normal, we don’t forget how much we missed them. Whenever we’re lucky enough to eat out, we should make sure to appreciate every aspect of the experience whether that be a casual rapport developed with waiting staff, the moment of silence as someone tastes the wine, or the smudges and splatters of purees and reductions artistically positioned on your plate, because as we’ve now seen, normality can unexpectedly disappear in the blink of an eye.

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