Queueing outside the door of the restaurant, glared at by safety instructions and wall-mounted hand sanitisers, I felt the same swell of embarrassed nerves I might get waiting to be seated in a roller coaster, the same niggle of faint regret.
Who knew that going out for dinner would one day become a comparable matter of carefully managed risk-taking for pleasure? Not that I didn’t believe the restaurant was safe: for our first family dinner out since Christmas, we had booked somewhere we knew well: the terrace of The Star Inn The City, the more informal York outpost of Andrew Pern’s award-winning Star Inn At Harome.
It was informality we wanted: to be surrounded by friends leaning over pints, elbowing each other to get to a bowl of chips, laughing just a bit too loudly. These shared moments of frivolity are what we really missed about eating out. Not starched tablecloths and not even, or at least not just, the food. So it was not catching the coronavirus that I feared, as much as I’d like to avoid that; it was that this would all be gone, that the atmosphere and not just the tables would be sanitised.
Entering the restaurant and stepping out onto the terrace however, I was relieved to find these fears unfounded. Eating out has always represented a microcosmic holiday, like ever so briefly entering a different region, and now this effect was only exaggerated. Yes, the face masks were odd, but the staff’s jovial frankness more than made up for this extra covering. Our waiter told us how alien the mask felt to someone whose job was, he insisted, about people, complaining that we couldn’t even tell he was smiling at us. We could, we protested. Everyone was smiling. And yes, there were fewer people, but the quietness was peaceful rather than unsettling. The burble of strangers’ chatter was more distant, but it still dissipated the dull fog that had settled on life under lockdown.
The food was pretty great too. I can make a mean pea risotto at home (as with many things in life, I suspect, the key is lots of butter), but it isn’t jewelled with sharp-sweet fennel purée and pearly goat’s cheese. And a Twirl snaffled out of a drawer doesn’t really compare with a glossy chocolate pavé, slashed through with raspberry sorbet and vodka jelly. Combine this with a view of fairy-lit umbrellas, a canal and clusters of murmuring people, plus a glass of slightly over-priced wine, and the effect was almost magical.
Until I stepped back out past the hand sanitising station and onto the eerily empty streets, I had almost forgotten about the ongoing global catastrophe. It’s that kind of escapism that restaurants have always been all about.
Image credit: Harriet Blackman