A chilly Saturday night in February and I am walking wide-eyed along London’s Gerrard Street, staring into brightly lit Chinese restaurants which should be crammed but instead are not. Waiters, who normally make feeding the crowds look like a deft contact sport, stand still, amid the vacant chairs. I do not know it yet, but this is the true beginning of 2020.
I was there to review a branch of Four Seasons, one of my favourite restaurants in Chinatown, where they serve pork belly that boasts crackling with an echoing crunch, and an addictively burnished Cantonese roast duck. My review was meant as an act of solidarity with the entire Chinese restaurant sector, which had endured a racist backlash because of reports of some virus thousands of miles away in Wuhan. What I didn’t know then was that, within six weeks, all those restaurants wouldn’t just be short on custom. They would be shuttered, along with every other hospitality business in the UK. Windows would be boarded up, staff furloughed or laid off altogether. Forget showing solidarity with one corner of the industry. It would be time to get behind the entirety of the sector and the millions of people who work in it.
It has been a year of parallel narratives. All too many people have had to deal with horrendous loss and pain. Meanwhile the rest of us have had to endure the flattening and shrinking of our lives. In normal times, I eat in restaurants and write smart-arse things about it, my prose forever teetering on the edge of a clumsy knob gag. My job is to let you know whether it’s worth your money and time. It could seem the very definition of ephemeral. Indeed, in normal times the whole hospitality sector could have been dismissed as such.
But as the first lockdown ground on, and then restaurants, cafés, pubs and bars creaked open, we realised, I think, that hospitality wasn’t ephemeral. It was part of the very point of it all. We are social animals. We want to be together. We need to eat. Purse strings allowing, how much better to do that in a place with menus, waiters and skilled cooks? How much better to be a part of the beating pulse of the herd?
A few weeks before the first lockdown, having sensed the way things were going, I drew up a list of subjects a restaurant critic could write about if all the restaurants were closed. I would not have wished for this situation, but dwelling on the joy of eating out became a curious pleasure. I considered what makes a classic, the importance of atmosphere, the definition of fantastic service, the places that make memories and so much more besides. Each one of these was a love letter to a restaurant business which hasn’t merely been a source of my employment these past two decades but also, for a chap overly interested in his lunch, a lifetime of joy. Yes, I have checked my privilege. It turns out I’ve got loads, which is nice.
Necessarily, I opened the reporter’s notebook to chronicle the challenges faced by our chefs and restaurateurs as they first battled closure, then the grind of looking after their staff, and the perhaps greater challenges of reopening, albeit in a limited form. What this crisis highlighted was the staggering appetite in the business for hard work and innovation alongside an understanding of community. I became heartily sick of the verb “to pivot” – enough with the pivoting, already – while recognising that it described exactly what so many people were doing. They set up online food shops and delivery services. Thousands of them set about feeding the vulnerable in the communities of which they were a part. Projects like Eat Well MCR, spearheaded by the chef Mary-Ellen McTague, led the way.
In the circumstances, swearing off writing negative reviews felt like, literally, the least I could do. I won’t rehearse the obvious arguments again. If you still have a problem with it, other restaurant critics are available. In any case there was so much great stuff to swoon over in 2020: the rugged, gnarly cassoulet that I ate at the Flying Frenchman canteen just before the shutters came down; the beautifully crafted pâté en croûte at Pique-Nique, the first restaurant I reviewed when they reopened; the textural, sparky joys of the pickled tea leaf salad at Lahpet, which revels in the food of Myanmar; the whole seabass with minced pork and chillies in a vivid sauce I described as a “Trumpian” shade of orange at Wen’s in Leeds; the whimsical take on the Manchester tart at Street Urchin; the extraordinary candy-pink damson soufflé with a shortbread biscuit baked into its surface at the Elder in Bath.
And all this against a backbeat of concern over the role of hospitality in the spread of Covid-19. I’m not an epidemiologist so I won’t attempt to unpick the detail here. But I will say this. In every single restaurant I have visited, and I have visited more than most, the commitment to the safety of diners and staff has been obvious: there have been temperature checks, social distancing, masked waiters, QR codes and the rest. I have always felt safe and yet it has still felt like eating out. For that I give thanks.
But let’s not pretend. It has not been normal. Nothing about 2020 has been normal. And so we have made our own normal. Perhaps we have cooked more of our own dishes, or tried to recreate restaurant dishes at home without losing a total grip on reality. Or, if we were able, we have thrown money at a restaurant meal kit to bring a bit of specialness to our table.
A couple of weeks ago the Chinese streetfood operators Rice Guys launched a new offering through their food delivery website pezu.com, which brings together delivery options from a bunch of interesting places.
There was a whole duck, marinated and then air-dried to be roasted Cantonese-style at home, yours for £28.50. I had to get it. It’s an astonishing piece of work, which roasts in an hour and results in the real deal, with salty, garlicky skin like glass, with a seemingly backlit amber shimmer, and the softest, sweetest meat. Was it the clatter and rush of lunch at the Four Seasons on Gerrard Street? Obviously not. But it was still a whiff of Chinatown and I was delighted to have it on my table. Happy New Year. Next week I’ll consider what is to come in 2021.