I’m not sure I would have gone out for dinner on so-called “Super Saturday” had it not been for the fact that it was my birthday. But go out I did, and it was fiercely happy and deeply strange. The happiness was straightforward, born of relief and being with friends after a long time apart. The strangeness, though, is harder to capture. Whatever rowdiness we saw later on social media, the streets that we walked were quiet and ghostly, and no matter how hard everyone smiled – from the doorman in his scarlet-trimmed cap to the maitre d’ who, with perfect equanimity, checked our temperatures – the evening was edged with a certain anxiety. I don’t mean that people were worried about catching the virus; it’s more that no one knows, yet, what lies ahead. A bus ride, an ice bucket, a rare steak: all the good, old things felt oddly contingent.
Restaurants are less changed, perhaps, than expected: in ours, the waiters didn’t wear masks; I saw no plexiglass screens. But the mood, for now, is vastly different, on both sides of the table. The intensity of it makes me think, reluctantly, of wartime: the determination to enjoy oneself; the sense of solidarity and gratitude that extends from diner to waiter, and back again. The atmosphere was solicitous, and cosy, and unwarrantedly glamorous – my grandmother’s paste earrings have never been more appropriate – and I felt coddled and appreciative to a degree that may have been unnerving to those around me. (“This bread is warm!” I announced to A, in the kind of stage whisper you might use at a jumble sale to say, “This bag is Chanel!”)
All this has limits, of course. Our sense of release in the coming weeks will be constrained not only by worries about jobs and money, but by the fact that spontaneity, for the time being, belongs to the past. Outings, at least to restaurants, must be planned like never before. For one thing, you must feel your way very carefully when it comes to invitation: some people, I’ve found, become quite furious at the merest thought of going out; those who were always apt to cancel at the last moment now have carte blanche to say no to everything. For another, having removed half their tables, restaurants are much smaller. Yesterday, I tried to book a table at a local place. The first one available is in September. At 9.45pm.
The prospect of asking a friend in July if they fancy a bowl of pasta in October is a bit dispiriting. Then again, perhaps by October, the novelty of restaurant-going will have worn off a little, and with it the slight air of madness that’s abroad. Last weekend, just after our starters had arrived, we heard, above the low hum of the room, the sound of a fork dink-dinking against a glass. Oh, horrors. A red-faced chap in chinos rose to his feet and, having boomed something about his “lovely” family, asked us to applaud the staff. This we did, after which we unclenched our buttocks and returned determinedly to our wine. But… uh oh. His mouth already opening and closing like a stranded turbot, he stubbornly dink-dinked again. I’ve no idea what he talked of next. No one was listening. “Oh, please don’t, mate,” said a low voice behind me – one that may, or may not, have belonged to a waiter.
Maybe he meant well. Or maybe he was tipsier even than me. All the same, his stunt was ill-advised. No diner wants to be reminded, at this point, of what they’ve left at the door: if cloakrooms were still permitted, you’d check in your worries with your coat. And waiters would rather be tipped than listen to speeches. We all know full well that nothing is normal, even those of us who have the temerity to want to eat out again. (Though I don’t precisely see doing so as my patriotic duty, I can’t go along with the self-appointed social-media coronavirus police, with the killjoys and the doom merchants.) Nevertheless, there’s real joy, right now, in dinner. Even as that sachet of hand sanitiser I mistook for salt reminded me of how far we’ve still to go, it spoke to me, too, of how very far we’ve already come.