When she called her new book ‘The Restaurant’could never have imagined it would be released when eating out was suddenly on hold
The setting is the paved courtyard of a tiny restaurant outside a village on the Amalfi coast in Italy.
Four of us are staying in the village for a week, and a barman recommended the restaurant to us the night before, so we’ve walked here, or rather climbed, since it’s up on a height, for lunch.
We’re sitting at a rough wooden table under dappled sunlight (lots of trees) enjoying glasses of ice- cold house wine and eating simple but sublime food: mine is homemade linguine tossed with chunks of freshly-caught salmon in a light lemon sauce. My friend who ordered the calamari refuses to share: the others grudgingly let me sample their gnocchi and ravioli, and it is all food for the gods, served by the delightful owner who looks about 70 and speaks no English, but is fluent in the language of smiles.
Of course I’m not there. That holiday happened four years ago, and of all the wonderful meals we ate that week, this one stands out. It wasn’t just the food, it was the combination of sunlight filtering through the leaves, and tantalising scents drifting about, and the soft spatters of laughter and clink of glassware from other tables, and our own good spirits. It was all that and the food too, perfectly cooked and happily served, and the sharp delicious wine that washed it down.
I’ve long been a fan of eating out, whether at home or abroad. When I took the decision last year to place a restaurant centre stage in my new book (titled The Restaurant, funnily enough), little did I imagine that it would be published in the middle of a pandemic, when restaurants all over Ireland and beyond, would have been forced to close their doors, and dining out, along with so much else, would have become a fond memory for all of us.
And fond it is. Who doesn’t love the excuse to put on a posh frock or a good suit and head off to a favoured eating place for a meet-up? I love all the little rituals and ceremonies associated with going out to dinner with pals: browsing the menu as we sip the pre-prandial drinks, debating over whether to split a starter, checking out the dishes that are being delivered to other tables while we mull over our choices, finally placing our orders and then chit-chatting and people-watching as we await the arrival of our meals. Being the proud owner of a voracious appetite, I would put sharing food with friends — food that we don’t have to cook, and won’t have to clean up after — at the pinnacle of social occasions, especially if it’s the kind of lovingly prepared food that nourishes the soul too.
However, while restaurants have become sadly, if temporarily, out of bounds for us, writing The Restaurant was truly a joy. Readers familiar with past books will know that food always plays a big part in the stories. I’ve written about dinner parties and cookery classes, a cupcake shop owner baking through the night, food being flung in anger and a marriage proposal in a hotel dining room. I’ll shoehorn food in wherever I can, so I was in my element writing about an imaginary restaurant called The Food of Love. Unlike its proprietor, Emily Feeney, I’ve never owned a restaurant but I’ve worked in a few over the years, from a little café in Limerick to a sandwich bar in Boston and the kitchen of a Buddhist-owned retreat located on a tiny island off Scotland.
On balance though, I prefer to be a customer than a server in a restaurant and these past few weeks of no eateries have made me nostalgic for what I could do without thinking before Covid-19 came to visit. I clearly remember one of my last meals out, when the pandemic was advancing across Europe, with everyone wondering nervously what was ahead. A group of us, five or six, went to our favourite Indian restaurant to celebrate a birthday. I remember the plate of mixed starters a few of us shared — paneer cheese balls, mini skewers of chicken tikka, onion bhajis — and the delicately spiced creaminess of my lamb korma, and how I foolishly shook my head when the dessert menu came around. If I had my chance to order a dessert there right now I’d work my way through their entire selection, from the wickedly sweet gulab jamun to the delectable buttery fudginess of mysore pak, and hang the calorie count.
I wonder what’s ahead of us though, now that our restaurants are set to reopen. Will chairs be spaced further apart at tables? One way to ensure nobody steals from your plate, I suppose— but this will surely limit group sizes, so maybe there will be no big family or workplace meals out for the foreseeable future.
And social distancing will also mean fewer tables in a room, making for a quieter, more subdued experience. Masks obviously can’t feature, but will there be other restrictions like having our temperatures taken on arrival, and hand sanitiser offered between each course? Will boxes of tissues feature on tables next to the salt and pepper, to ensure good cough and sneeze etiquette? So much to consider. However, whatever the changes that lie ahead, I won’t let them stop me from engaging in one of my favourite activities. For one thing, restaurants will need our custom, so we must support them.
Maybe a restaurant crawl will become the new normal, with diners travelling to different establishments for each course: now there’s an idea I could get behind. I know I’ll be hot footing it as soon as I can to The Green Yard in Limerick, one of my favourite spots, for some lemon chicken piccata and garlic sautéed potatoes – and I will try very hard, as I always do, not to lick the plate.