It was the year we craved the normality of a meal out, regardless of how abnormal an experience it might have to be for that to happen. No matter that the waiters might be masked up or the tables dotted across the room as if set for an interrogation, or that there could be screens between those tables. If the essentials were present – a list of dishes that you hadn’t cooked yourself, someone to fetch them, a pass on the washing up – many of us were there for it. At times it felt as if all of us customers and staff alike, were working very hard to share that delusion of normality.
But 2021 was not normal. I began mine by combing my bookshelves for satisfying cookbooks with which to fill a restaurant column when all the restaurants were closed. I reacquainted myself with the brilliance of great recipe writers and cooks such as Claudia Roden, Simon Hopkinson and the late Gary Rhodes. The latter finally taught me to swallow my shame and learn how to make custard from scratch. Custard vanquished; life skill achieved. Thank you, Gary. You may no longer be here, but you held my hand from beyond the grave.
When the time finally came, I grabbed the opportunity to get out of my own kitchen like an A-level student galloping from the exam hall after the final paper. I made a list of the past year’s top restaurant experiences recently and the first three that came to mind were all outside London. I loved the butch, gutsy cooking at the Double Red Duke in Oxfordshire, with its glossily sauced devilled kidneys and its fat scallops under drifts of garlicky crumbs. The sunlit early evening I spent at Sonny Stores in Bristol, sweeping the fattest of salted anchovies on to crusty bread, and demolishing a plate of perfect meringues with white peaches will stay with me for a very long time. And then there was the tiny menu at Erst in Manchester, which delivered so much more than it promised: bubbled and blistered flatbreads swamped with garlic butter; steak tartare under a shouty tonnato sauce; a bay panna cotta that melted away on the tongue.
In an age when holding polarised opinions has become a spectator sport, someone somewhere will now extrapolate from this that all restaurants in London are therefore awful. Obviously not. The dish that I got the most correspondence about was the golden carb and dairy fat wonder of a double XL triple cheese toastie served to me at the Wigmore. People exchanged photographs of theirs on social media, like tourists proving they too had visited Angkor Wat on their holidays. Only it was an Angkor Wat crafted out of toasted sourdough, Ogleshield, raclette and Montgomery cheddar. Elsewhere in the capital I was thrilled by the intense nerdiness of Humble Chicken where many specific parts of the bird were carefully grilled on sticks over burning coals. Oh, that line of parsons’ noses.
Honourable mentions must also go to the bravery of the Dirik brothers at Mangal 2 who have broken from the traditions of the many Turkish grill houses around them in Dalston, to serve something a little more subtle and, in its own curious way, Scandi. And then there’s the extraordinary bespoke sushi experience that Chris Restrepo narrated his way through at Kurisu Omakase, operating out of his parent’s café in Brixton. I do so love dinner and a show.
But if you want stupidity in the restaurant sector, if you want a business proposition that will make your eyes roll so aggressively your neighbours will be able to hear the friction of ball against socket, the capital is still guaranteed to deliver. It speaks volumes about what truly dreadful people you all are, that when I finally broke my self-imposed ban on negative reviews by dismembering the pop-up Polo Lounge on the rooftop of the Dorchester Hotel on London’s Park Lane, it became my most read review of the year online. They deserved it for marking up bog standard wines by a factor of six or seven, and charging £38 for a McCarthy salad that looked like someone had been trying to colour code vegetables as part of a middle management away-day bonding exercise.
The second most read review online? It had to be my stupid stunt outside Salt Bae’s Nusr-et Steakhouse in Knightsbridge, during which I declined a hyper expensive gold leaf-wrapped steak in favour of a takeaway from the marvellous Kebab Kid. I will admit I did feel a bit of an arse sitting at a picnic table on the pavement outside, but not as much of an arse, I venture, as all those people who are still going there for £1,000 gold leaf-wrapped steaks even though dear Salt Bae – that’s Mr Bae to you – flew out of London weeks ago, presumably sprinkling various seasonings from his private jet while howling with laughter.
Of course, while I swanned around from one table to the next putting my back into the arduous business of eating my tea, life for the restaurants themselves has been rather less dreamy. Many reopened after the lockdown to find that staff they depended upon simply weren’t there any more. Some had re-evaluated what they wanted from life during the pandemic and concluded that a tough job in hospitality wasn’t it. Others were EU citizens who had simply gone home.
When I pointed out in a recent review that this was forcing restaurants to shorten their opening hours and blamed this squarely on Brexit, a number of people argued this was a positive. It meant people were no longer willing to work for what were too often the lousy wages offered by hospitality. While I don’t think that negates any of the arguments against the utter bollocks of Brexit, they do have a point.
Each week commenters on my reviews online compare the prices in British restaurants unfavourably to those in, say, rural Thailand or Ukraine, while failing to acknowledge the differences between the economies. Those comparisons are pointless. Running a British restaurant is expensive and this past year has shown us just how shaky the sector’s economic model can be. If we want to eat well and be served by people paid a proper wage, we are going to have to accept that it will continue to cost more. That doesn’t mean all pricing is fine. Some restaurants do take liberties. Good value matters. But the cost of eating out is rising. Don’t bother being cross with me about that. It’s just a fact. And it will still be the case in 2022. See you next year.