Restaurants are about much more than food and wine. Though you wouldn't know it from this picture of an empty Chez Bruce in Wandsworth.
I first encountered Gerald Diffey just over seven years ago. In October 2013 I reviewed very favourably Brooks restaurant in the heart of Melbourne, of which Diffey, born in Gillingham, Kent, was then a partner. The partnership fell apart but Diffey still had Gerald’s Bar (where our Australian correspondent Max Allen recently and coincidentally recorded this 20th anniversary video) and several other businesses in the Melbourne suburb of North Carlton.
Then in my opinion he did something very silly. He opened Geralds Bar in San Sebastián in northern Spain, 17,000 kilometres away. But until COVID-19 struck, he managed to pull off running these two far-flung outposts of his empire.
It is difficult to think of two places that have been worse affected by what Diffey referred to in a recent email as ‘the plague’ than the Australian state of Victoria and Spain. Spain has recorded just under 40,000 deaths while Melbourne and Victoria seem to have managed to get on top of the disease via a severe seven-month lockdown, putting into practice something known locally as ‘the ring of steel’.
It was his reopening in Melbourne which prompted Diffey to get in touch with me again, complaining that now that he was back in business his ‘feet have never ached so bad’, before continuing with one of the most unequivocal aperçus on the restaurant business that I have ever read. ‘Restaurants are not about food or wine’, Diffey opined, ‘they’re all about community, connection and conviviality.’
I can understand why Diffey feels this way. Seven months without restaurants is a long time – almost twice the length of time we here in the UK have had to do without them – and so I can well sympathise with Diffey’s sentiments. And yet I wonder whether, when we are able to enjoy restaurants again here in England from early December – ‘all being well’ as each of my eight Jewish aunts would preface any of their predictions – we will see them as Diffey does. Or will we return to viewing restaurants as before, in terms principally of their menus and their wine lists? Restaurants are of course far more than any combination of these two.
The only difference I would like to make between my view of restaurants and the three nouns cited above by Diffey is in the order in which he lists them.
For me, it is the conviviality that any restaurant creates that is the most distinctive contribution of the three. This is the combination of some inspiring cooking – the overriding reason we go out to restaurants is the potential of eating dishes that we are simply incapable of cooking at home – coupled with a great wine list. All of these should be served without the slightest touch of hauteur, with smiles and a sense of humour, and with deference but no obsequiousness. If you believe that this is easy, try it for a night and then repeat the exercise for enough lunches and dinners in a week to make your restaurant profitable.
It is this conviviality, once established, that leads to Diffey’s, and my own, second justification for restaurants, the connection that they provide. Whatever the possible connectivity – and how many lunches or dinners take place just on a hunch that the two participants may have something worth exploring in common? – there is no doubting this justification for the successful return of restaurants. It is this social context that has to keep so many restaurateurs optimistic even when they are closed. We are social animals and most of us need the urban jungle of pubs, restaurants, bars and nightclubs in which to prowl safely.
It is this same sense of optimism that keeps office developers sleeping at night. The notion that one day, when a vaccine has been safely delivered and administered, life will return to normal. Perhaps not quite as soon as Sir John Bell, the esteemed Regius Professor of Medicine at Oxford University, rashly promised would be spring of 2021, but let us hope by the autumn of 2021. All being well …
But it is Diffey’s first factor, the local community, which any restaurant strives to serve, that has been the factor determining which restaurateurs have profited most as they have pivoted to survive. With the absence of air travel meaning an equal absence of customers from overseas, with city-centre hotels virtually empty, and with cities themselves described as doughnuts (crisp and firm on the periphery but soft in the centre), those that have best responded to this new state of affairs have been the long-established restaurants offering great value for money and located in wealthy pockets around the metropolis. A case in point in south London has been the long established Chez Bruce in Wandsworth, first opened in February 1995. Before our second lockdown kicked in, I am reliably informed it was virtually impossible to get a table. (I first mentioned Chez Bruce back in 2001 in this article about the pleasures of eating out in London's suburbs.)
When restaurants in the UK do reopen – on 3 December when our lockdown is due to end, let us hope – it will be the run-up to Christmas when restaurants have traditionally been very full and noisily hectic. For this reason I have in the past generally tried to avoid restaurants in December. But not this year. I am excited to return to as many as I can. But the reasons for this enthusiasm are not principally the opportunity to satisfy my appetite or quench my thirst.
I’m keenly hoping to return to restaurants, even in busy December, because I have missed them and everything that restaurants have to offer, that sense of conviviality that leads to the connection they provide in the community that they serve. As well, of course, as the opportunity to relish a new way of looking at and enjoying restaurants.
My views, I hope, will now be determined by Diffey’s three nouns rather than the more obvious ones that have steered my writing since I began writing about restaurants over 30 years ago.