THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
Today, July 4, the pubs and restaurants of Britain re-opened. The UK media dubbed it 'Independence Day' - perhaps not quite as meaningful as the original American July 4th, but a justified sentiment after 3 months of lockdown. There's an understandable angst about eating out, with a recent Ipsos MORI poll revealing that only 29% of British adults feel "very" or "fairly comfortable" about "going to bars and restaurants", compared to 60% who feel "Not very" or "Not at all" comfortable. But what is it actually like eating out in the new normal?
My other half and I have been going for local walks when we can – English Heritage and National Trust trails are plentiful in our neck of the woods. But given today is the re-opening of pubs, we chose to follow a walk with a staple of British Saturday afternoon summers - the Pub Lunch. It was with a mixture of curiosity, wistfulness and a desire to support the hospitality industry that we made the booking. The first noticeable difference is that it'll be best practice to book a reservation in advance, to help control numbers, but that's no bad thing, as it means there's less waiting around for your table. The second difference is that when you arrive at the restaurant, you may be asked for your name and telephone number for the purpose of contact tracing. Most venues say they'll destroy the record of your details after 21 days, and if you're used to booking online anyway, you'll most likely have given these details in advance.
Most pubs, like the one we visited, have also introduced one way systems, and stickers with instructions on social distancing. At this early stage, when restaurants are likely to be a little quiet during tentative returns, the instructions are easy to follow, and the staff are keen to help. In the pub we visited, the instructions were clear and not at all daunting. We had our choice of an indoor or outdoor table. We opted for the outdoor table, partly due to the humidity (overcast British weather at its most predictable), but also because the statistics do indicate that you're less likely to contract the virus in an outdoor environment. The indoor area of the pub, however, involved chairs and tables spread a good distance apart, making them equally sensible options for dining.
There were some neat little solutions at the pub we attended to help keep everyone safe and secure, including cutlery provided in paper pockets with napkins. We were given paper menus (which we kept), and there was a table only service. Some pubs and restaurants will be using apps which you can download onto your phone as another way of ordering food, but we had a traditional service, and perhaps that's where the new experience actually worked really well. There's a tendency for some dining out experiences to be somewhat formulaic, but the interactions on this occasion were genuine and warm - staff and customers alike seemed keen to support each other, to stay safe, and to enjoy the experience as best as possible given the difficult conditions.
But aside from that, was the experience all that different? Not really. We sat outside, ate good food, had nice conversation (and an ale or two), and left feeling full and happy. In some respects, the experience felt less rushed and hectic than it usually would. Perhaps slowing the world down will help us to gain perspective - eating out should be a restful, relaxing experience, and these new safety and security initiatives help to focus on relaxation, ease, and peace of mind.
It's important to remain careful, and to stay alert, but if everyone follows the guidance, and looks out for each other, we can get through the pandemic whilst holding on to some of those moments we hold most dear. This past week, the UK Chancellor Rishi Sunak asked Britain to "Eat Out to Help Out". If it's safe for you to do so, and you feel comfortable going out, then why not?
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