OPINION: Restaurant experience isn't just about the food you are eating
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Whenever I write about restaurants (and because I’m obsessed with food, that is quite frequently), the comments section of the online edition is always awash with knowing jibes written by people who like to point out that you can save a pile of cash by staying at home and cooking for yourself.
These joyless people always assume that dining out means spending a fortune at a top-end establishment, conveniently overlooking the very many, mainly independent, restaurants which offer tremendous value at the not-so-expensive end of the spectrum.
They also think that restaurants are just about what you eat, which seriously misses the point.
I’m a reasonably competent cook.
Many of the meals which I have been served when dining out are things which I could make a fair stab at replicating in my own kitchen.
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And over the long months of lockdown, I have done just that.
I have eaten well, made the effort to serve up food which excites rather than just fuels. But, oh how I have missed the joy of being served food that someone else has prepared.
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It was my wife’s 50th birthday last weekend, and this would normally be the excuse (as if one were needed) to gather friends together and book a table at one of our favourite eateries.
Whilst several restaurants have managed to open by using their available outdoor space, I couldn’t be sure in advance that this would be possible, and I didn’t fancy having to tell my better half that for the second year running, her birthday meal would be cancelled.
Luckily – and I know I am very fortunate in being able to do this – the fact that I write about food and host cookery theatres for a living means I know a good number of chefs, and I managed to persuade a top restaurateur to come and cook the birthday dinner for us at home.
Six of us huddled under a patio heater in a gazebo in my garden, while the culinary maestro worked his magic in my kitchen.
I cannot begin to describe the sheer joy of sitting back and letting someone else do the heavy gastronomic lifting. Of having food brought to the table, the wine poured, the plates cleared, and the washing up done.
Having a private chef is an expensive luxury (although not as costly as you might imagine), but what the experience taught me is that there is nothing quite like the restaurant experience, even at home. I have missed it so much.
Naturally, the food was top-notch, and because of the calibre of the chef, these were not dishes that I could have attempted myself.
But there was so much more to it: being able to sit and relax with my friends throughout the meal without constantly jumping up to check the next course; having your wine glass kept topped up by an attentive server whose job is ensuring your enjoyment; and ending the evening with a spotless kitchen (until you have had a professional chef clean down your worktops, you don’t know what clean means).
And that was at home, in my garden, which although lovely, didn’t even start to replicate the unique atmosphere of an actual restaurant.
The whole experience of eating out is an irreplaceable treat.
From the moment you make your booking, you are anticipating the occasion. You arrive, are shown to your table, and have that mouth-watering experience of perusing the menu, revelling in the chef’s creativity.
You spend some time people-watching, the whole experience enhanced by sharing it with total strangers.
I love the whole ritual of being served.
I love the unhurried yet efficient tempo which a good restaurant will somehow pull off, despite having to serve multiple tables of people eating at different paces, all of whom have ordered different meals.
I love arriving home in a taxi, knowing that while I savour that post-dinner feeling of satisfaction, someone else is doing the washing-up.
I don’t even really mind getting the bill, because I know that I am paying for so much more than the food on my plate.
To complain that you could cook the same ingredients yourself for a fraction of the cost is like whingeing about the cost of a coffee at a café in St Mark’s Square, or the Champs-Elysees – rather missing the point that what you are paying for is a front-row seat at one of the greatest shows on earth, which just happens to come with an espresso thrown in.
So whether you have already braved the spring weather and dined al fresco, or if you are waiting for next month when restaurants without outside spaces can re-open, embrace the wonderful eating-out experience and help our embattled restaurants recover so that they can continue entertaining us, pampering us and, yes, feeding us for many years to come.