Like many Brits born in the mid-eighties, my earliest memory of dining in a “proper” restaurant was Pizza Hut. Ours was on Eltham High Street in south-east London, and it was my grandparents who took my siblings and I there – a special treat, every now and then. My granddad was a Communist-leaning docker who felt uncomfortable with anyone serving him, so of course he loved Pizza Hut, with its all-you-can-eat, serve yourself buffet. I hated pizza as a child, but who cared when you could eat a bowl of creamy potatoes, coleslaw, sweetcorn, croutons and bacon bits and call it a “salad”. I looked forward to nothing more than these early evening meals, the time spent with my nan and granddad, the crayons and coloring-in, the queuing for the Ice Cream Factory.
So much of life happens in restaurants, doesn’t it? There’s the good stuff: the thrilling first dates and romantic proposals, the birthday parties and anniversaries. And the bad stuff too: the terrible first dates and awkward break-ups, the excruciating conversations and unbearable tension. Restaurants are the collision of public and private, the scene of intimate discussions interrupted or overheard. How often I’ve witnessed a hushed argument at the next table over, or watched a woman discreetly crying into her napkin di lei before excusing herself to find the bathroom. (I’ve been that woman too.)
When writing my first novel, At the Table, I wanted to use restaurants to look at this chasm between our public and private selves. Opening with a family lunch at The Delaunay, where a long-married couple announce to their adult children that they’ve decided to separate, the novel follows each member of the family over a year of meals, drinks and parties, from Soho and south London, to Lecce and Paris. Though I’d had the idea in 2019, it wasn’t until restaurants closed during lockdown that I started thinking more about their importance in my life.
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Unlike my young nephews who celebrate birthdays in Burger and Lobster and use miniature chopsticks at Sticks and Sushi, my generation didn’t go to restaurants as children. Or we went, but only as tag-alongs when our parents couldn’t get childcare. Apart from the occasional trip to the local Chinese or Indian, I don’t remember dining in restaurants until I was a teenager when the high street chains started popping up. Beautiful Italy. Carluccio’s. Picture me on my first date in Cafe Rouge, a bistro table by the window on a Saturday lunchtime, seventeen years old in bootcut jeans, a lace Kookai vest and flip flops, attempting to look at least three years older than I actually was. My date also tried to appear older, his voice changing when ordering his baguette poulet as though impersonating his dad. To some this act of ventriloquism might’ve been impressive (even sexy?), But to me it was cringeworthy. His affectation of him gave me the ick and from then on, our romance was doomed.
Restaurants became a bigger part of my life when I turned 18 and my parents separated. My dad – whose cooking repertoire consisted solely of Sunday roast, full English and kedgeree – moved into a sparsely furnished flat with a tiny galley kitchen. But he worked in the West End, and restaurants had been ingrained in his life di lui since I was born, frequently enjoying leisurely lunches, returning home with the hot reek of booze.