After weeks of repetitive lockdown cooking and washing up in Wales I was excited to return to London, where the restaurant world was doing its best to operate normally.
The weather was mild and sunny and most places had outdoor tables, strategically placed so customers could easily distance. Some were extending Eat Out to Help Out into September, offering enticing discounts.
London has a dazzling array of menus from around the globe. You can eat cheaply on street food, reasonably on set price lunches or pre-theatre suppers or lavishly in some of the world’s best restaurants.
I decided to Eat for England, contributing towards the struggling economy and enjoying myself in the process.
To build up an appetite I walked for miles along the city streets, a pursuit I have relished since my arrival in London 43 years ago. I walk slowly but occasionally speed up, just to prove to myself I can. I stop when I fancy, sit on a bench and watch the world, perhaps while eating a Pret a Manger sandwich. It’s one of my favourite ways to spend time.
I also love sitting in restaurants on my own. You can eat as quickly or as slowly as you like, focus on the food and perhaps your fellow diners. You can read while you eat, or just daydream.
Eating out with friends remains the greatest pleasure. A friend I had not seen for a while had come to meet me for lunch. She is an excellent cook and has high standards. We walked along Upper Street looking for somewhere nice to eat, but nothing seemed to fit the bill, until we remembered there was a branch of Ottolenghi close at hand.
Often you have to download the menu in restaurants or do something fiddly with the QR code, which is off-putting. I am happy to give my name and contact number as it makes sense to do so at the moment. Hand sanitizer as you walk in feels a bit clinical, but also necessary.
In Arabica, a lively Lebanese restaurant In Borough Market, they took our temperature as we went in, which felt medical but reassuring. The Meze dishes were all delicious, particularly the spiced cauliflower wings. We drank hibiscus juice and laughed loudly with the charming waiters. Just the kind of fun I like.
In Ottolenghi the experience felt low key and stylish, as befits the food. Sleek waiters in black masks glided around the restaurant. Our food was a little slow to arrive, so they gave us complimentary bread and olive oil – in itself a culinary treat. The food – salmon with an almond sauce, and a selection of delicate salads, was a delight. Service seems to be added automatically these days, which feels right, as it can’t be easy trying to be charming and efficient when half your face is covered up. Diners don’t need to wear masks, except when crossing the restaurant.
Deprived of restaurants and cafes for what had felt like a long time I decided I wasn’t going to cook at all. Not even chop a tomato. Paying the contactless way with my credit card made it so much easier to forget the price of all this fun.
I ate pub food from Louisiana – four different rich, fried snacks – in the Plaquemine Lock opposite the Regents Canal, French bistro-style Filet d’agneau serve with what tasted like smash in La Petite Auberge in Islington, a rather pricey Salade Nicoise at Bellanger on Islington Green and sticky homemade spinach cake in Coffee Berry on Barnsbury Road where the kind owner made me a fortifying carrot and ginger drink before I set off for the airport.
In The Ned on Poultry, my old friend and I shared arancini up at the bar in Cecconis and later at Brasserie Zedel near Piccadilly, the three course set dinner was served with panache, as befits this impressive venue. They even presented us with a free macaroon, served on a plate where they had thoughtfully piped Congratulations in chocolate. We were celebrating a college reunion after 40 years and we laughed gleefully at this unexpected gesture just as we used to do when were 19.
Three times I enjoyed light, fresh falafel at the Lebanese stall in Upper Street. I even had kippers for breakfast at l’Alpino cafe at the far end of Chapel market. Spiced tofu, fried squid, pork bun and sticky rice – outside the Modern Shanghai in Newport place were hugely filling. There is a brilliant, colourful outdoor eating area in Chinatown, festooned with lanterns across Newport Place.
Then as a final splurge I met my lovely daughter at Morito, the cheaper branch of the legendary Spanish restaurant – on vibrant Exmouth Market.
There we ate little plates of squid and chickpeas, mackerel and roasted aubergine, perched on stools as the sky grew dark and the air cold. It was time to put on a jumper.
Only on my last night, did I give in and decide that I couldn’t possibly eat another meal. I had run out of steam and certainly of cash.
I lay on the bed in the Angel Doubletree Hilton (a bargain £75 a night – many London hotels are offering great discounts as they’re so empty) reading the paper and scoffing Bombay mix. It was all I could manage.
As the weather turns cooler, maybe eating out in Britain will become harder, especially with the new restrictions about groups of six or more. I had throughly enjoyed my time in London, Eating for England. I felt I had done my bit.
Luckily I am now back in my beloved El Cabanyal, where the evenings are still very warm and light and squid – calamares a la plancha – is half the price. Eating out to help out in Valencia may continue long into the winter.