It is a Thursday afternoon and I am eating lunch that someone else has cooked for me, at a table that is not my own, which someone else has laid and – the real clincher – where someone else is going to do the washing up.
It has been four long months since any of us went to a restaurant. My last visit was on March 10th to Parson’s in Covent Garden with a friend, where we ate grilled mackerel and chips and were too nervous to hug hello or goodbye. A week later, after the country was plunged into lockdown, she sent me a message: “So, it appears that might have been my last social engagement for… ever?! Very nice to have spent it with you.”
Tomorrow, as restaurants throw open their doors after more than 100 days of lockdown, diners will return to a brave new world of hospitality, where hand sanitiser stations outnumber tables, chefs wear masks and silverware comes in a sterilised pouch.
At Rick Stein’s in Barnes, south west London, the head chef, Nic Till, and manager, Paul Hough, are getting ready for their first service – breakfast for 65 on Saturday morning (the restaurant normally seats 85). I have been asked to read the menu ahead of arriving, sanitise my hands at the door, and follow arrows on the floor to a table in the newly distanced dining room, where diners will sit 1.5m apart. The table is adorned with nothing but a starched white napkin (remember them?), which deftly hides a pouch containing sterilised cutlery that I’m assured haven’t been touched by human hands. “Anything put down on the table will be done by a completely clean-handed sanitised server,” Hough explains. “If you order a dessert or a soup another pouch will be put down with sterilized cutlery inside.”
I order a bottle of sparkling water and a glass of wine – all brought to me by a masked server making a valiant effort to smile with his eyes, who apologises that the new rules require him to leave me the bottle rather than pour it for me.
The whole way they operate has shifted. Now, staff are required to arrive at the restaurant at staggered points throughout the day, they’ll sanitise themselves thoroughly before they enter the building, and change out of their outerwear. Delivery drivers are required to wear PPE. Kitchen and front of house staff will be kept separate, and all chefs will be wearing masks. “It is going to be very hot in the kitchen,” says head chef Till.
At a restaurant that prides itself on having a warm, neighbourhood feel it “goes against the grain” to distance and fill the space with hand sanitiser and signage. “We all work in the hospitality industry because we like looking after people,” says Till. “It is weird, but we’re just trying to adapt to it. There are plenty of other ways we can make sure our guests are looked after.”
Michelin starred, white tablecloth affairs have to adapt even more. At the Dysart in Petersham, which earned its first Michelin star last year, guests are accustomed to intimate table service, with plenty of explanation of the menu, and multiple intricate courses flying out of the kitchen. Guests will now be asked ahead of arrival what level of service they are comfortable with, with the option to enjoy direct table service, have dishes left on a side table for them to pick up themselves or take plates off one metre-long trolleys which will be wheeled to them.
They will have their temperature taken on arrival, and in order to distance within the dining room (which has been tastefully adapted to comply with the new restrictions) they will have to notify a server if they wish to leave the table to go to the loo.
At Core in Notting Hill, Clare Smyth – the first and only female chef to run a restaurant with three Michelin stars in the UK – is keen to get back in the kitchen. "It’s been awful. I have trained my whole life to do this, it’s not just a job for me, it’s something that from the age of 14 I wanted. I worked incredibly hard on my career, and worked in the best restaurants all over the world and being a chef is really a part of who I am.
"Not being in a restaurant environment you lose a part of yourself and your identity, so it’s so good to come back. I know when I’m able to do that first service I will just feel so much better. I just can’t wait for that first day in the kitchen. It’ll have been 105 days, it’s a long long time."
With all the restrictions she has put in place (down to perfume bottles containing hand sanitiser on every table, and a log of all her staff members' daily temperatures), Smyth's restaurant is now "a controlled environment".
"We need customer confidence to be here, we need everyone to feel safe."
There is no denying that in a post-Covid world, going out to eat is going to be a different experience, and it won’t be for everyone. But as I tuck into a lobster thermidor, fries and a simple green salad, the utter glory of eating something delicious that I haven’t made myself outweighs any of the strangeness.
If this is the next phase of our new normal, I’m on board.