After the initial burst of glee that many of us felt on seeing the roadmap to recovery back in February, a quieter realism has set in. All dining until mid-May at least – which is an arduously long period – will involve eating outside. Notice that I did not say “eating outdoors”, which is that first, delicious mouthful of Cornish pasty on a windswept beach or a sandwich pulled from a plastic box halfway up Scafell Pike. In these cases, food tastes better outdoors.
Eating “outside”, on the other hand, is very different. This is when your local landlord assembles a £25 Dunelm gazebo in a loading bay and passes it off as a “deluxe dining terrace”. Eating outside is what London’s fancier restaurants are actually promising, with their VIP rooftop greenhouses, bottomless champagne pool cabanas and heated pergolas. All of this is a fig leaf over the cold, hard truth: it’s likely to be 11C out there, so pack a bobble hat and wear thermal knickers.
Still, if outside is all we’re permitted for now, and it’s a way to kickstart the economy, then I’m committing to the cause. We ponder a lot about British values – these days, they are mysterious, contentious and ever-moving – but one I will suggest is a defiance in the face of bad weather, and an in-built determination not to let a bit of trench foot spoil a picnic; to keep buggering on regardless of soggy bunting, flooded lawns and rain-battered marquees.
If anything, in fact, we have as a nation trained all our lives for 12 April 2021, when hospitality can at last reopen, at least outside. From childhood, we are honed to expect any seaside trip to involve at least one hour cowering from hailstones in a bus shelter while eating foil-wrapped luncheon-meat baps. At Alton Towers, it is almost imperative to enter the log flume already soaked to the skin, while Glastonbury works almost as well when it is a mud bath, because a spirit of dogged, cider-fuelled joie de vivre sets in.
Godspeed to the families I’ve observed this week picnicking on lino draped across puddles of mud in Crystal Palace Park and passing around a Cath Kidston cake tin with quiet stoicism. Sandwiches had been made, sandwiches had been packed, so sandwiches would be eaten, and at any cost. This is partly why, I feel, hospitality premises across the land are currently hammering up lean-tos and investing in outdoors heaters. The roadmap to freedom isn’t exactly as we’d prefer it – southern France’s temperatures, say, would be lovely – but we’ve been indoors too long, we miss each other, so build it, and we will come.
Of course, by now you may be thinking, “Grace is right, perhaps we should make a reservation for April. Frank at the Bull & Bush is opening a sun terrace.” Well, I’m sorry to inform you that you’re too late. Britain is already booked up, and will be until late autumn. While everyday polite and cautious folk have shilly-shallied about thinking they should probably make a booking, be aware that a hyper-organised element of society has for the foreseeable future reserved every patio seat, every afternoon tea sun terrace, every weekend dinner table and, for that matter, every holiday cottage in the British Isles.
There are two ways of looking at this. The first is that it is incredibly positive for hospitality that all booking platforms have been swamped by diligent pre-bookers dying to throw money at our cash-starved pubs and restaurants. The other is to be concerned that British hospitality, for the last two weeks of April, is now fully at the mercy of punters who are sitting on dozens of reservations, hedging their bets for nice weather, and those who make multiple reservations on the same night and simply choose where they fancy on the day, leaving all their other tables empty. Sometimes, these diners also cancel at the last minute and, when told a deposit will be taken, retreat to TripAdvisor to bleat about the manager’s cruelty.
As I catapult around restaurant reservation platforms, what I see tells me that Britain is open and I’ve gone from having nothing in my diary to having missed the boat already. At the park, thank God, walk-ins are still welcome, so I’ll meet you by the seesaw and I’ll bring some lino. Mine’s a can of gin and tonic. No ice needed.