"The hospitality industry is well named; as has been often and wistfully noted in the past year, the pleasure in visiting a restaurant or cafe is as much in feeling welcomed and looked after as it is in being fed."
I have not been writing blog posts for the last two days, because I have been dining out with friends and family. They were both joyous but different occasions, so I thought I would write about the pleasures of dining out, and those two occasions in particular. And coincidence rears its head again - well in a way, not real coincidence - in that the last two newsletters from The Guardian have featured several posts on the joys of dining out. Even more relevant over there in the UK of course, as they emerge from lockdown. We have been doing this for a little while now.
Anyway I do hope my two lovely daughters-in-law won't mind their faces gracing the beginning of this post, but the selfie really showed the pleasure and the atmosphere of a meal out in a proper restaurant after COVID. My own photographs didn't really capture the joy. In fact, that other most expressive photo of the experience was the beautiful photo of my niece - our other companion - also taken by my daughter-in-law.
For Christmas I was given a lunch out by these three. It's a beautiful present to give, because not only is it generous, but it enables them to join in too. In fact it's becoming a sort of tradition. We - or I should say I - even decided to return to the same restaurant the Grossi Florentino Grill in the city, so not only did I get to do a posh lunch, I also got to go into the city - which I love and which I now very rarely do. Such is my suburban life.
The various Guardian writers put it all so much better than I could. Here is Jay Rayner on the whole thing in response to a restaurateur friend saying that their business was creating an atmosphere, not in selling food:
"It’s an atmosphere which echoes through time. The restaurant experience begins with a booking made, followed by the sweet tingle of anticipation, that little fizz of electricity which reminds you that in a day or two there are nice things to come. You think about reaching a respectable level of drunkenness in public and the joys of saturated animal fats. It is about pushing through the door and feeling the hum of the other people around you. It is about the shine on the glass, and the intrigue at the table next to yours. It’s about the washing-up: the fact that someone else is going to be doing it. I have come to hate washing-up." Jay Rayner
For me that experience began way back at Christmas, shortly after we here in Victoria, Australia had emerged from lockdown. The promise of a lunch out with these three was wonderful and I carried it with me throughout the next few months. For we all agreed to wait until all the holiday rush and new school year thing was over. A few more events intervened but eventually the booking was made with the usual juggling of dates to suit everyone. Now anticipation was heightened, and heightened even more a few days before with all the planning of how to get there - car, train, bus? Eventually for Dionne and I it was car - so then where to park? Casino - cheap and relatively easy and a nice walk through the city to get there.
At last the day arrives, we set off - thank heavens for GPS which ushered us to the car park. A walk through the Casino complex - dreadful I know but interesting nevertheless, a walk up to the city, which gave me the opportunity to take photographs of new things.
Even a quick trip on a tram as it was getting late and the last bit was all uphill and then we are there:
"from the moment you sweep past the maître d’s desk into a restaurant in mid-service, everything about the rotten, outside world should feel perceptibly nicer." Grace Dent
And it sure did. We actually were some of the first to arrive for lunch but within half an hour or so the restaurant was humming and the anticipation of all that special stuff was actually here. Let the party begin - for Nic with a special drink - an Espresso Martini - prepared by a wonderfully stereotypical barman with long Ned Kelly type beard, short sides hair and tattoos. For the rest of us it was a glass of wine, and athough bought by the glass, for we all wanted different things, it was poured from a bottle with flair. Generously.
As Jay Rayner says, it's also about the shine on the glass and the intrigue at the table next to yours. Next to us on one side was a solitary man (I think he may have been joined by another later) with a rather larger glass for his wine than ours. Why we asked amongst ourselves. Was he getting special treatment? However, we decided in the end that it was just a glass for that particular kind of wine. On the other side were a group of, shall, we say, comfortably padded people who were later greeted like old friends, - as was our fellow diner on the other side - by the owner himself - Guy Grossi (a Melbourne celebrity chef and icon) - who made several circuits of the restaurant meeting and greeting those he knew and generally keeping an eye on things.
Then came the bread and the oil which caused our poor waitress some problem. I suspect she may have been relatively inexperienced because she had to serve the very thick slices of delicious bread with a spoon and fork, and the basket was too small for the large chunks of bread, eventually causing her to drop one of them on the floor. Poor girl. She hastily picked it up and disappeared, before returning for a second, successful attempt. My piece was huge - the crust end, which I suspect should have been sliced once more. I could not eat it all.
But the anticipation isn't over for now you have the exciting task of choosing something to eat from the menu. Pasta or meat? or fish?, an entrée or dessert? Well on this occasion I don't think I chose particularly well. I chose the Romanesco - that purple cabbage, which had been grilled or roasted, and sat on a Pecorino sauce with hazelnuts dusted around, followed by grilled king prawns. When really I think I should have chosen the raw kingfish entrée and one of the pasta dishes. Which is not to say that my two chosen dishes were not spectacular looking and tasty.
But the stalk of the cauliflower was a little tough, and gorgeous though the prawns were, they were tricky to eat and when all's said and done there was not a lot of meat in them. But oh the chocolate cake that we shared for dessert was divine.
And anyway, it honestly was really not about the food. We were allowed to sit and talk and enjoy the goings on around us, we were allowed to enjoy the beauty and simple elegance of the room. We enjoyed the courteous and super friendly service from the waiting staff, who even found that chocolate cake as a special because my pregnant niece could not eat the other desserts on offer. In fact she was offered three different options that were not on the menu. Both she and Nic left eventually - things to do, but my daughter-in-law and I lingered on until we were almost the last to leave the restaurant. Almost first in, last out.
"Isn’t the world more affable now? Haven’t these simple, kind, emotionally nourishing acts transformed your psyche? This is why restaurants are magical, and why the world has felt like a barren, dystopian landscape without them." Grace Dent
Indeed the world was more affable now. Even though the weather was not as bright, and it was now almost rush hour, and it was a longish walk back to the casino, where it took us a longish turn around the car park to find the car, and even though by the time we left town it was indeed rush hour and the traffic was awful - even so the world was definitely more affable now. And that feeling was so great that it persisted well into the evening at home.
I was going to continue by writing about that other meal that we had yesterday in the Yarra Valley but I will save that for another time. Instead I will leave you with a couple more quotes from The Guardian and the UK where life is trying to return to normal. Alas I fear it might be more difficult over there. And they can still only eat outside in the chilly spring air.
"I realised that, as we emerge from this long, enforced hibernation, I wasn’t just getting back my freedom, I was getting back my time. Time with food and friends: the best way to spend time. " Tamal Ray
"There’s a lot about cooking and eating at home that I’ve enjoyed during this period. The mark of it will stay with me for ever. But I can’t pretend. I’m gagging to pull a chair up to a table, order a cold drink, settle back and listen to the chatter of strangers. " Jay Rayner
I know this picture that Dionne took is a little blurry but it sort of says it all.
Extravagence, elegant decor, interesting other people, and happy anticipation. Thank you ladies.