In these darkest of days, few industries have borne the brunt more than the hospitality industry. Restaurants, bars, pubs and cafés lie at the very heart of all our communities and having to close their doors has dealt a shocking blow to many thousands of dedicated, passionate and loyal people. It’s heart-breaking to think of all the businesses that strived for years to get to where they were, only to see it all come tumbling down so dramatically.
We need restaurants. It’s where we go to meet friends, meet family; it’s the first place we go to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, new jobs, new plans; it’s where we do business, where we fall in love. When we want to mark the most joyful moments of our lives, it’s a restaurant that we think of first.
Restaurants also define us – as individuals and as nations. Is there a better way of getting a handle on an unfamiliar country than by eating in its restaurants? And surely the greatest part of any holiday is exploring new cuisines and trying new tastes. Food is our common language; our common ground – and eating out ties us and unites us.
Restaurants allow us to step out of the familiar. For me, there is no greater thrill than walking into a new restaurant for the first time and being handed a menu. We all love the drama and the performance; it’s little wonder that resting actors choose to work in them because restaurants can offer pure theatre – but with less clapping and better drinks.
It’s the feeling of being part of something that’s so appealing. I’ve spent a lot time in Japan and love their cuisine more than any other, but one of the strangest experiences was going to a restaurant where every table was in its own private room so you never got to see your fellow diners. That may be great for those who don’t want to advertise the company they’re keeping but, for me, it was wholly at odds with the very essence of why restaurants exist – the shared experience, the feeling of community, of connection.
For me, the love of restaurants came before a love of food. When I was around 15 my father lived in Paris and in the school holidays I’d stay with him for a week or two and he would take me out to restaurants. Those Parisian restaurants opened up a whole new world to me. There would be a revolutionary student on one table, and a woman in a mink coat on another, feeding her lapdog morsels from her plate. It was the hum of contentment, the easy glamour, the plumes of cigarette smoke, the confidence everyone had in this thrilling environment and the ease with which they conversed with the waiter. The next day I went out and bought my first packet of untipped Gauloises and knew that this was a world I wanted to be a part of.
“Kitchen Confidential” then came out and Anthony Bourdain made chefs cool. Like the kids who ran the funfair Waltzers and winked conspiratorially at your girlfriend, they could intimate with their piratical appearance and outsider status. Their lives seem so exciting, so outside the norm, so lacking in routine.
I’ve been to over 30 countries in my time with the guide. As inspectors, our sole concern is, of course, the food itself - the restaurant may be the most beautiful, best run dining room in the world but if its cooking isn’t good then we aren’t going to recommend it to our readers. But we still strive to find as many different styles of restaurant as we can and this is what makes the job so satisfying.
My job makes me a promiscuous restaurant goer but one day, when I hang up my eating boots, I’d like to settle down and be a loyal and faithful customer to a local restaurant. A restaurant that’ll always find space for me, that’ll know how I like my Old Fashioned, that will always put ice but no lemon in my water and will forgive me when I ask for my espresso to be hotter.
Now, like everyone else, my days involve staying at home, eating 9 meals a day and sobbing quietly at The Repair Shop.
There’s lots of talk at the moment about how this crisis will change the restaurant landscape forever; how we can’t return to what we had before. We’ll see.
There is one certainty, however. The one thing we will all do as soon as this dystopian nightmare is over: we will all eat out.