Until we all went into lockdown – the ‘before’ period that feels like another time altogether – I used to love to eat out. Although I am a moderately good cook (and my husband a willing sous-chef), there is so much to be said for it.
Making an Occasion
First, it is such a nice way to make an ‘occasion’. We put on somewhat nicer clothes (and, for some restaurants, much nicer clothes) and feel we are already in a different-from-normal situation.
We are waited on, of course, and have the pleasure of choosing what we will eat that day. It is fun to choose different things from the menu and taste each other’s choices.
We can sit and talk for as long as we want, with someone bringing food or drink as needed. If it is somewhere with a view, so much the better.
Eating out also gives the chance to eat food we don’t normally eat – and sometimes I discover something I feel I could make at home. If I am keen on a dish, I will ask the chef how he or she makes it.
I also love the way some restaurants make food look especially inviting. We do that a little at home, but with much less of the flair – no swirls in the soup or parsley artfully scattered.
Sometimes, it is simply a matter of a new idea about food.
We once had an anniversary dinner at the Connaught Hotel in London, with its very special surroundings (a handsome room with wood panelling), and it then had a well-known female chef.
At the end of the meal, after a very delicious dessert, the waiter brought a simple basket of large dark Italian cherries. I would never have known it, but cherries are just the thing to settle the digestion after a large meal.
Every time I eat cherries, I think of that occasion.
I have some clear memories of particular meals, often served outdoors somewhere in Europe (or ‘on the continent’, as we say in England).
A totally unexpected platter of prawns, herbed vegetables, and garlic bread, beautifully laid out, provided by a very unpretentious hotel in the Basque area of Spain. It had no restaurant, but we had asked if they could rustle up something simple because we didn’t want to drive further that evening.
The seafood platter served on the terrace of a beautifully situated hotel in the French Alps, not far from Chamonix. The food was not only delicious but happened to be accompanied by a distant small avalanche within our view.
The seven-course vegetarian meal, each course more inventive than the last, in a restaurant in the Auvergne area of France. I love good vegetables, but they are so rare in good restaurants, as chefs usually focus on the meat.
To add to the surprise (we had chosen the place because it had a Michelin star), but when we arrived, they told us with regret that they had lost the star, but we had an out-of-date guide and therefore did not know that.
I could go on.
But there are some things I don’t like at all about eating out. I don’t like the bowing and scraping of elegant waiters, asking constantly “Did you enjoy the meal?” Indeed, I don’t like that question in any restaurant. I don’t want my napkin placed into my lap when I sit down.
I don’t want a waiter pouring my wine or water every time I take a few sips. Indeed, one of our tests of a good restaurant is whether the waiter will desist from this, once we make it clear we prefer to pour our drinks ourselves.
Eating out should feel like there is a mutual pleasure between the restaurant staff and you, the customer. You may or may not meet the chef, but the person bringing the food should feel enthusiastic about it and greet your interest and comments with warmth, not formality.
Preferably, they make you feel that they want nothing better than to please you. Such restaurants are hard to find, but they are the ones we keep going back to.
In recent years, our favourite restaurant met all these criteria. The premises were not remotely fancy, but the food was perfectly cooked tapas of all kinds, brought to the table hot from the kitchen in whatever order it was cooked.
Because we ate there frequently, we got to know the people who ran it and could joke with them about all sorts of things. And then, a year ago, they told us the sad news that they were closing, as they wanted to move on to other activities.
We never managed to replace it.
But since Covid-19 has been upon us, we have not eaten out once. I don’t like the idea of being served by people in masks. It changes the nature of the occasion. Perhaps I will learn, but we haven’t tried.
One of life’s losses for the moment.