When Boris Johnson first announced the government’s roadmap out of lockdown, hope burned gently inside me like a warming plate beneath a murgh makhani. In just a few weeks, I would be able to eat food cooked by someone other than myself, a feast to which I wouldn’t have to give a second thought – no shopping, no washing up – until the arrival of my credit card bill. What a relief. But where first? Mind racing, I pictured gorgeous, higgledy-piggledy Noble Rot in Soho. In that moment, I decided I would get there long before my companions, order two portions of those superlative little choux pastry buns filled with duck liver parfait and glazed with sauternes, and eat every last one myself, accompanied only by a large, cold glass of something the colour of an old wedding ring.
For as long as it lasted, this was an extremely pleasing daydream. Like all the best fantasies, it was straightforward, unashamed and built for easy repetition. But then – pfff! – reality hit. You can more easily pass an aubergine through a pretzel than you can book a table in some restaurants right now – or perhaps in any restaurants at all. Certainly, if you want somewhere with outside space (no eating inside until next month), you can forget it.
If my experience is anything to go by, every last wonky pavement table has long since been bagged. For the future privilege of sitting in your winter coat with a blanket over your knees and no feeling whatsoever in your fingers and toes, your only hope is to join a waiting list. I once wrote in this column that “I’m not having a starter” are the most terrible words in the English language. Now I’m not so sure. “Would you like to go on the waiting list?” may be even worse. At least you know where you stand with the kind of killjoy who proceeds straight to their main course as if to the last bus home (“The bottom deck will do, thank you”).
Having failed to get an outside table anywhere, I switched my attention to May, and the great indoors. Unfortunately, this hasn’t worked out either. I already have a job, and thanks to this I’m unable to devote myself full-time to trawling restaurant websites. At the moment, I have achieved one booking in London, in late May, and I am about to ask – to beg, in fact – to be added to the waiting list of a certain restaurant in York in early June. Yes, you read correctly. York’s bourgeoisie, it would appear, intend to be positively debauched in the coming weeks, staggering from Bettys to Skosh to Le Cochon Aveugle on some kind of crazed, endless loop. I’m going to take sandwiches and a flask when I visit, and at evensong in the Minster I will pray wildly for cancellations, and hope that the smell of the incense suppresses my appetite.
Ah, cancellations. That’s another thing. During our various stretches of freedom last year, no-shows were a major problem for restaurants. But I sense it will be different this time, and not only because most now insist on credit card details, or even a deposit, to secure a booking. While the term “pent-up demand” used to seem to me like one only an estate agent would use – a ruse to justify loopy prices – these days, I’ve only to hear it to picture throbbing, pulsating humanity about to explode from nowhere; to hear the sound of a thousand voices demanding a wine list and wondering loudly what the specials are. It’s very real, this pent-up demand. It is clenched like a fist. If lots of us are vaccinated, even more are thoroughly fed up. Not since I was a child, and about to be taken to a Berni Inn for my birthday, have I felt such a sense of boiling anticipation at the thought of folded napkins and soft-voiced waiters.
On which note, I’d better sign off. It’s time either to sharpen my virtual elbows once again, or to accept that, really, there’s nothing wrong at all with having a swank dinner at 4.30pm on a Monday afternoon (“and we’ll need the table back at 6.30pm”). Wish me luck as you wave me goodbye.