Good Food contributing editor Joanna is an award-winning journalist who has written about food for 25 years. She is also a regular contributor to BBC Radio 4.
The last year brought home to me just how much I value the precious physical experience of dining in restaurants with other people. Happily, as I write this, it looks as if restaurants in most areas of the UK will be serving customers inside by the time you read it.
As a seasoned restaurant reviewer, eating out has always been a big part of my life, but I hadn’t realised just how much it mattered to me until I wasn’t allowed to do it. I’m clearly not alone. As restaurants plan their great re-opening they are being inundated with online bookings. In Cornwall, Rick Stein’s Seafood Restaurant took 30,000 advance bookings, and while you could guess that the beautiful South-West would be gearing up to welcome holiday-deprived visitors, restaurant bookings are also hot tickets up and down the land. One Manchester restaurant, 20 Stories, received over 5,200 bookings for tables on its terrace within the first 48 hours of opening its reservations line, and in London, Richard Corrigan’s Bentley’s Oyster Bar & Grill had 500 eager customers on its waiting list for the first week of opening.
‘I think customers will have a greater appreciation of restaurants,’ says restaurateur Jeremy King, who, along with his partner Chris Corbin, runs several of London’s most famous restaurants. I’m sure he’s right. The French gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin wrote about the critical importance of restaurants when he observed: ‘Cooking is one of the oldest arts, and one which has rendered us the most important service in civic life.’ His point is still highly relevant. The experience of eating out in a convivial setting isn’t just about having food that’s a change from what we’d cook at home, it’s appreciating the pleasures of a well-set table, the clink of cutlery and glass, the buzz and sense of occasion, the theatre of it all. Restaurants are a vital component of our economy.
The hospitality industry in the UK employs 3.2 million people and accounts for 6% of GDP. It’s a key employer of younger people, everything from students serving tables to pay their way through university to the mainly youthful front-of-house teams who are willing to work late nights, and the kitchen brigades who need the stamina for long hours at the stove.
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Indirectly, restaurants generate even more jobs because they sustain a wider web of suppliers and services that rely heavily on their existence – everything from the florist to the fisherman. Without restaurants, many other small businesses would disappear.
In bricks and mortar terms, restaurants prop up our high-street parades, small towns and villages. The vitality and feeling of purposeful activity they generate breathes life into areas that would otherwise feel eerie and dead.
We’re all grateful, of course, that some restaurants managed to stay open through lockdown by offering an ‘at home’ service. One restaurant in Glasgow even trialled the UK’s first drone delivery service to get food to customers faster. But, for me, takeaways are a poor second-best. The food is never warm enough for one thing, and going out is a big part of why restaurants appeal.
Once restaurants reopen, having their food brought to our door will become less of an option. Jeremy King, for instance, says that he doesn’t expect to continue this service when he starts welcoming indoor diners. ‘Space is limited in The Delaunay kitchen, and we need to concentrate on being restaurateurs.’ Amen to that.
I won’t weep when home delivery services are reduced. But eating out in a restaurant alongside other people? I’m chomping at the bit.
Read more articles by Joanna Blythman
Out of the crisis came creativity
Why our food choices have become boring
Every high street needs a refill shop
Banning eating on public transport is misguided
For health’s sake, please eat when you drink
This article was published on May 2021.