An ode to eating out
Robyn Alexander tells of restaurant meals past and her sense of nostalgia and loss because of Covid-19
Early on during the lockdown, a video went viral on social media: it featured a little girl in the UK being told by her mom that no food made outside her home at all is available to her. Between sobs, the child asks about one delicious option after another — "Chinese?" "McDonald’s?" — with her mother gently renewing the terrible news (no, it’s not open) with every query. Finally, the mom says: "I’m so sorry, darling, you’re going to have to eat what mommy cooks." Her daughter puts her head back and lets out a full-on wail of despair.
How I laughed at the time, still drunk (there was wine then) and blissed-out on seven slices of home-baked banana bread. What an idiot I was. Because eight weeks later, that despairing little girl is me. To go out casually, sit down in a crowded restaurant and have food someone else has planned, shopped for and prepared simply placed in front of me … and then, when the food is eaten, to have the plate magically removed — it all seems like a kind of miracle now.
That sense of being part of a group of people happily and loosely connected in one space simply for the purpose of eating and drinking — will it ever be there again? I know from my current feelings in supermarkets that being in a crowd is going to be nerve-racking for me for a long time, so I’m not sure sitting seven to a table built for four at Publik’s sliver of a wine bar in Cape Town is ever going to please me in the way it used to.
It’s all very well, you see, to be talking about "getting back to normal". I’m not sure that’s going to be possible. There’s clearly going to be a new normal, and what that looks and feels like is going to take a while to decipher and construct, let alone to learn to live with. So in the meantime, to make me keep believing that it might be possible to be eating in a restaurant once again, and to prevent me from also throwing back my head and letting out howls of despair, here are a few of my favourite memories of eating food cooked by professionals.
The first two places where I ever ate restaurant food were — very appropriately for a girl growing up in Pretoria in the very early 1980s — steakhouses. One was called Sir Loin (geddit?) and the other Asterix (though Obelix, again understandably, featured more prominently as a pictorial ideal). Going to either was a major, once-every-two-months treat for which we dressed up and were always on our very best behaviour.
At Sir Loin, where there were both "outside" tables (in other words in the mall) and "inside" ones in the main premises, the biggest thrill was to sit inside, in a pleather-clad booth, under a "medieval-style" cast-iron light fitting. And when settled there, I always ordered a "lady size" rump steak (cheaper than fillet — we were very conscious of not ordering the most expensive things) with pepper sauce. It was always excellent, it was always cooked just on the rare side of medium, and the sauce was always unspeakably good: so peppery it would have been too hot if it weren’t so very creamy. I usually got indigestion on the way home (I’m not one of life’s natural banters) but it was totally worth it.
By contrast, at Asterix, I only ever ordered the Greek salad. Yes, the old-school SA steakhouse kind, in a brown mock-wood bowl, with four quarters of tomato, plenty of iceberg lettuce and very garlicky dressing. I had it because I adored olives and feta cheese with an absolutely pure passion, and these two things were in those days not readily available at a supermarket. I kid you not.
My next big restaurant memory is all about my beloved godmother, who died last year of cancer, and her ad-creative husband (also, sadly, long gone). I visited them without my parents at the end of the December holiday just before my matric year, and not only did they sit me down and play the whole of Graceland to me, they also took me to San Marco in Sea Point (I got there sitting in the back of their black BMW 3 Series Cabriolet with the top down). While kindly explaining what it all was, they fed me a proper Italian meal that commenced with carpaccio. I will always be grateful.
The next course
After that, when I was being sustained mainly by University of Cape Town residence catering in the very late 1980s, the biggest weekend treat was getting pizza at a brilliant place in Main Road, Mowbray, called Pizzazz. It was pitch dark inside at all times of day, and the pizzas were cooked in a wood-fired oven, served on wooden boards and slathered in the bright yellow "cheddar" that was one of the two types of cheese then sold in SA. (The other type was the same colour but slightly milder and oilier, and was called Gouda.) We’d always be in a biggish group, as no one we knew went on dates to restaurants (or indeed on dates at all — that’s a whole other Gen X story) and my best friend and I would usually share a medium salami and green pepper pizza and have an Appletiser each. It was pure bliss, and I think cost us about R15 per person, which seemed pretty extravagant at the time.
A year or two later we discovered Blues, in Camps Bay. It was the most stylish place on earth at the time — or so it seemed to us — and we’d save up all semester and then go to lunch there after we’d finished exams. It was the first place I knew that served green salad leaves topped with warm, just-cooked chicken livers. Cold salad! With hot stuff on top! It was thrilling … and of course there was the view, and the elegant, pale wooden tables and crisp white linen, with those shades of blue as "accent colours". And everyone who served us was so polite and kind to the 21-year-old twerps who ordered salad and rock shandy and then disappeared for another six months. (Once my best friend’s older sister was with us, and she stood us a bottle of white wine.) I probably don’t need to add that we always dressed up for this too.
I don’t dress up anymore: as an adult living in the Cape Town CBD, restaurants are now — well, were now — an everyday part of my life. I think we did know how spoilt we were for choice two months ago in our old life, when 273 options (yes, really) popped up on my OrderIn app whether I opened it at home or at the office, and innovative places were regularly being launched to tempt us.
Certainly, spending six years in Joburg between 2009 and 2015 made me much more appreciative of Cape Town’s dining options. That said, nowhere in Cape Town can you get food like you can at Red Chamber or Pron, and you have to trek to Magica Roma in Pinelands to eat anything like the old-school SA-Italian food that pops up regularly in Joburg and is especially fantastic at Tortellino d’Oro in Oaklands. Also, I miss Schwarma Co in Norwood. A lot.
Anyway, back to being a spoilt Capetonian diner — a woman who thinks twice about going to Bao Down to guzzle prawn toast at the bar only because she has to take an Uber to get there, rather than walking, and walking gets her within 10 minutes to La Tête, or Bocca, or the Commissary (I know, never again, my heart is sore), or Clarke’s, or True Italic, or The Meeting Place, or Hokey Poke. A different Uber — or even a MyCiti bus — would get me to Publik for indie wine and a plate of burrata with melba toast, with tacos at El Burro Taqueria afterwards.
I miss it all very much. To paraphrase one of the classic ad slogans my godmother’s husband worked on back in the day, restaurants are about talking, eating, drinking, laughing, singing, sharing … OK, maybe not singing, please. They’re definitely about fellow diners whom you don’t know appearing charming and interesting, rather than like mad libertarians run amok, as most people seem on lockdown social media.
Sometimes restaurants are about transcendent food and beautiful spaces too — things to eat and places to be in that transform the way you think about the world.
Or they can simply be about the food you think is great at the time. All of this, I think, is why I love them so.