The horror of socially distanced restaurants

23 May 2020

9:00 AM

23 May 2020

9:00 AM

What does a critic do when her genre collapses? Mostly I panic. I speak to restaurateurs who believe that without government help into 2022, many British restaurants will close.

Most restaurants rent their premises; even if landlords defer collection, the debt will be unpayable. Most restaurants operate on slender margins; they cannot secure finance even in happy times. It is a scandal that the government has excluded monies from the service charge ‘tronc fund’ from the 80 per cent calculations in the Job Retention Scheme, even though it has received National Insurance contributions on it for years, and many restaurant staff are getting only 40 per cent of their earnings.

Restaurants predict a summer slaughter. What will survive? That is easy: the cheapest and the most expensive; the inedible and the vulgar. The middle, though, will collapse. Almost every restaurant I love is in the middle, because that is where taste lies. It is a paradigm of what is to come.

Look to America, where Donald Trump offered consolation only to the owners of the restaurants he likes: McDonald’s, which he serves to visitors, like a child; Domino’s; Wendy’s. Ponder it, before it is too late.

In the meantime, we are seeing — though not yet here — the phenomenon of the socially distanced restaurant, a sort of haven for Scrooge McDuck, which will be necessary if the distancing endures until Christmas. It isn’t profitable: it’s performative, a prayer, a ghost limb wobbling in the hope it will return. Chefs have been tweeting photographs of what their socially distanced restaurants will look like: they look like morgues populated with the still alive. They look like hospitals. I suppose Le Louis XV de Alain Ducasse in Monte Carlo is already a socially distanced restaurant, as they seem to have only five tables — plus a full-sized tree, indoors — but I wouldn’t eat there for pleasure. As a writer I am keen to try out a socially distanced restaurant; as a diner I am not.

What to do? I order takeout from the Sea Palace Chinese Restaurant on Quay Street in Penzance — a sort of resuscitation by telephone —and eat adequate Chinese food. It’s the sort of food you order if the idea of cooking another meal makes you punch yourself. Then I go to Marks & Spencer.

It is joyless shopping in a socially distanced bourgeois supermarket; it feels like shopping in a tyranny, a sort of Cornish Dubai, where the shopper fears transgression. I have always felt emotionally soothed in Marks & Spencer because my mother does not cook much — she would rather read history books — so we commune here. But not today, when the vegetable aisle incites anxiety and the fine packaging feels spurious and insulting.

I thought I would buy Chinese–style ready meals and compare them with the adequate Sea Palace Chinese Restaurant because I used to work for the Daily Mail, which did such features, and I like the intensity, and the pointlessness of them: which rice is the worst rice? For the same reason I adore Which? It is a micro–history of capitalism.

I buy half a crispy duck for £10 and soft noodles and egg fried rice. I curse myself when I try to eat it: why reheat carbohydrates of any kind unless it is a sexual fetish? Then there is sweet and sour chicken — nuggets and sauce so inedible I wonder why the bin did not scream when I fed it in — and beef with ginger. Ready meals are, on the whole, unpleasant, and these were, but the duck was fine: a bargain. Even so, I could lose it all for restaurants, and I pray for them.

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Sea Palace Chinese Restaurant, Penzance TR18 4BT, tel: 01736 330997

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