It’s 11pm on a Thursday and instead of shouting ‘one more drink?’ across Trisha’s, I’m closing the door on a charming paramedic named Cliff, who has been sent by 111 to check up on me and the melody of symptoms I’d queried on the phone.
After much gentle prodding, poking and stabbing he deems that no, it’s not the dreaded Omicron, flu or food poisoning as I’d reported to my editor, but — tiny violins, please — some sort of infection possibly (read: definitely) brought on by too many units of alcohol, too few nutrients and not enough sleep. I’m perhaps paraphrasing the paramedic here — sorry, Cliff — but my orders are as clear as the Government’s current policy on Christmas parties is not: stay home and be healthy. Going out is out, drinking is strictly forbidden and menus, even takeaway ones, are off the menu.
The first two parts of this, I think, won’t be too much of a problem. But the last — it quickly transpires as I peer into my cupboard at the wasteland of Cup a Soup, Christmas pudding from seasons past and several almost empty bottles of Jose Cuervo (gold, of course) — might well be. It suddenly strikes me, while trying to decide if I should eat a box of Carr’s cheese melts that had expired in October, that I haven’t dragged my wheelie trolley to Brixton’s big Tesco since I moved in. And that, besides the odd slice of toast, Sainsbury’s fresh soup slurped straight from the tub and the spread of skewered cheese and pineapple, smoked salmon and cream cheese blinis and quorn mini sausages I proudly unveiled for friends at my 28th birthday house party back in September, I haven’t prepared a meal at home since I unpacked my TK Maxx Le Creuset collection. That was when I separated from my boyfriend. In June.
I know what you’re thinking. Woman overindulges! Stop the press! No, I don’t have an ounce of pity for myself either because I’ve been living out my wildest childhood fantasies with about as much restraint as one. Having spent a large chunk of my younger years living in a corner of über-rural Wales, dining out was off limits for several reasons. It had always been a fascinating, alien concept to me and as a result, as soon as I made the big move to London nine years ago every jot of my disposable income has been splashed on eating everything in sight. As if in fear that one day the fantasy might be pulled from beneath my feet, my 20s have been shamelessly indulgent on a shoestring budget. Paul’s viscous hot chocolate, the salty French onion soup that could slay the country’s slug population at Brasserie Zédel and Jeremy Lee’s smoked eel sandwich have each marked integral passages of these years, where I went from measuring children’s feet in a Clarks shoe shop to fashion school, interning and securing my first real job. So needless to say, I was ecstatic when I landed my dream role in October last year. As the new writer and editor of ES Magazine’s Feast pages, I resolved to take my job of giving the city’s new restaurants and bars a whirl, with the intention of uncovering what’s truly worthy of your hard-earned dollar, very seriously indeed.
There was a slight hiccup with my plan to go full Bruce Bogtrotter on the capital, however. Just as I was amending my LinkedIn and RSVPing to openings like my life depended on it, the virus-that-shall-not-be-named graced us with another whirlwind of ever changing restrictions, devastating the capital’s existing restaurants, delaying those new openings and leaving us hungry city dwellers either cooped up, dining outside or worse: forced to spend even more time eating with those we’d been locked up with.
When the final clutches of super-strict restrictions eased in June, the sun was shining, our social calendars were bursting with commitments and I was about to approach the capital like a kid in a Michelin-starred candy shop. Although it was at this point when I remembered what binge-watching romcoms on furlough had taught me: in any woman’s narrative, if one thing goes up another must come crashing down. Just as I was getting geared up to spend a couple of nights a week doing my very finest taste testing, the romantic relationship I’d been building over the course of five years broke down. Leaving my cosy, coupled-up life behind, I moved into a shared house with complete strangers where it quickly became apparent that clinching an evening of solitude on the sofa or a quiet afternoon heaving my cookbooks about the kitchen was an unlikely prospect. So when the slew of invitations for a backlog of restaurant openings arrived in my inbox, they became a welcome distraction. Before I knew it I was eating more butter than James Martin. Dining out became my crutch. Though if this suggests I wasn’t having the time of my life, you’re mistaken.
It was the opening night of famed hedonistic haven Ave Mario that was the catalyst for the six months that followed. The launch of this behemoth was set to unofficially announce that dining out was back on the menu. And that it did. The striking, red-striped room vibrated with excitement. It felt as though the whole of London, pumped for a summer of post-lockdown shenanigans, had been bundled into this one space. As plate after plate of caviar-topped pizza and truffle-dusted everything was placed in front of us, my oldest friend and I looked at one another in bemusement. We grew increasingly tipsy on the tactile energy and boozy fumes that filled the restaurant and as waiters dressed as monks poured wine from imperial sized bottles, we confessed our sins for shots in a Catholic confessional booth and posed for pictures in mirrors that said ‘Sins are forgotten, not forgiven’ in neon lights. London and all its fantastical decadence was open and I, like the rest of the city, was hooked.
The trouble is, like a gluttonous little puffer fish, I’ve not been able to let go of the bait. And even when there haven’t been openings to go to, the idea of even microwaving a ready meal has seemed unthinkable. I’ve now spent six months living a reckless, culinary version of a #hotgirlsummer (with a dash of the Hunsnet version, too) and like the crisp, cold rosé that goes hand in hand with such behaviour, I never want it to end. Whether catching up with friends at Homeslice, devouring eggs with my sister in Brixton’s old-school Express Cafe, waddling home from so-so dates eating dodgy chicken strips or perched on a bench with a podcast at Koi Ramen on my own dime, I’ve been relishing my luck, spending every moment of my spare time with the colourful characters who fill London’s restaurant scene with joy. I have zero regrets. Apart from — look away, boss — the Tuesday I found out that Patrón Cafe was to be discontinued.
I’ve now spent six months living a reckless, culinary version of a #hotgirlsummer
And while, yes, each zingy, heavenly creamy and downright disagreeable mouthful of food and drink has refined my palate, the real take-homes are the many new friends, food memories and learnings that I’ll cherish for life. I’ve marvelled at the wonders and nuances of many, many mezcals with Santiago Lastra’s team at Kol Mezcaleria and been indoctrinated into the white truffle fan club by wonder restaurateur Stevie Parle. Discovered that greedily ordering two lots of the sourdough soft serve at Fallow is always a good idea, Royale’s rotisserie chicken is good even in 29-degree heat and that devouring the brains of a gigantic brown spider crab in front of the chefs from Great British Menu will never not be embarrassing. I now know that anything fried and served on a stick — see Korean Dinner Party’s corn dog and Dai Chi’s kakuni pork with fried pickles — is probably going to be delicious. That Tomas Lidakevicius’s miso bread with whipped black garlic butter proves that some things should be messed about with. And that yes, the fare at Russell Norman’s Brutto really is all it’s cracked up to be. Contrary to popular belief, Tunworth cheese ice cream is, indeed, a valid and very delicious pudding, and replacing part of the wine list with kombucha will help you remember the last course of a tasting menu. And take note: you should never, ever, count anchovies in olive oil as a starter, as you’ll likely go to bed hungry.
Despite the fact my weight fluctuates, I’m perpetually a tiny bit hungover and I have given away my entire savings in staff tips, I wouldn’t change the past six months for the world. And while I (probably) won’t be going out seven nights a week again for the foreseeable future, I still don’t want to blink and miss one second of London’s thriving, busting, chaotic restaurant scene. Perhaps going forward I’ll eat fewer loaves of bread, or order a side of broccoli instead of chips. Or maybe I’ll just invest in some Berocca. Either way, if you’re reading this Cliff: I am drinking more water.