I’m a restaurant critic, and even I’m finding it a hassle to dine out

·6 min read
William Sitwell: Booking a table can be a tricky business these days - Rii Schroer for The Telegraph
William Sitwell: Booking a table can be a tricky business these days - Rii Schroer for The Telegraph

The stay-at-home diktat was almost bearable. It was novel and came with a time limit. But easings of restrictions and the venturing towards the new normality has thrown up an unexpected hurdle, one that, set against freedoms, seems even more debilitating: the death of spontaneity.

Because now we have to plan everything. No swinging by and popping in, be it to a private house or public tavern. Thinking of a surprise visit to Great Aunt Ethel? Not if you haven’t been tested, and checked if everyone else has, and that you haven’t been near anyone who’s been near anyone that has the plague.

Need to pop to the shop for a pint of milk? Not if you don’t have a mask. And what about a last-minute idea to call your friends and go to that brilliant Italian you’ve heard about? You can’t even get a table when you phone. Not that you can phone anyway these days; you’ve got to reserve online through a booking service app. And the computer says there’s no table till 9pm (next Thursday).

The pennies have been dropping rather loudly at home recently. There is another way. Another route to pleasure and fun. And it’s cheaper and with no restrictions. Although as a British restaurant critic and events organiser I feel that admitting it is almost career-ending suicidally unpatriotic.

But looking at the statistics – and chefs, restaurateurs, hoteliers and publicans should look away now – staying in really is the new going out.

One example of the clanging penny came to me last week as I was brought two hot, chilli-tastic Vietnamese perfection steaming bowls of pho. In these two bowls were a wonderfully authentic taste of Hanoi street food, with a meat broth, coriander, Thai basil, prawns and bird’s eye chillies. Beautifully packaged, clearly labelled and affordable, it came from new home-eating brand Phomo.

Phomo is one of many meal-kit brands looking to grab a corner of this nascent £1 billion (and growing) market. And investors are circling, excitedly.

A few weeks earlier, having failed again to get a table at a favourite restaurant, I did the same as most sensible people facing New Year’s Eve with friends but no restaurant or babysitters booked; I ordered a fondue set on Amazon.

It arrived the next day and after a light shop – for heavy cheese and a few cornichons – with six around the dining room table, we had the most entertaining night in ages.

Our home fondue and pho surge reflects a growing trend in the UK, which is exemplified at the luxury end of the food market. Waitrose, for example, has reported that sales of caviar have soared, 52 per cent higher in January 2022, year on year. Oyster sales at Waitrose are up too, jumping 24 per cent, as are those for magnums of Champagne, up almost 50 per cent. Gone are the kitchen suppers, because it’s hello to fine dining in your own dining room.

Ironically, if the success of meal kits inflicts further damage on the restaurant industry, it was the same industry that started it. Early in the pandemic gifted chefs and restaurateurs flexed their offerings, with food stars from Jason Atherton to Adam Handling and national brands from Gaucho to Dishoom dispatching food boxes to our homes. Now most restaurants are ceasing that trade, but Britain has caught the meal kit bug.

And while Middle England is whooping it up on at-home posh seafood and huge bottles of fizz, the nation as a whole has been drinking at home more than ever – 2020 saw a rise in alcohol sales compared with the previous year, with beer up 31 per cent and spirits up 26 per cent.

Of course those findings emerged out of lockdown but there is definitely a fear in the hospitality industry that some new habits born in the pandemic, post-plague, will become endemic.

Waitrose has seen a surge in sales of caviar and booze
Waitrose has seen a surge in sales of caviar and booze

The convulsing corpse of hospitality is now having its soul destroyed by the huge problem of labour shortage. The industry’s response to it is one reason why you and I can’t seem to get a table. Hours and opening times have been cut to manage the dilemma and a cursory look at TripAdvisor suggests the British public are finding that the staff that restaurants and pubs have managed to find could do with a little training…

And we’re noticing that the bills at the end of meals are pricier. Is this really the result of increasing food costs or are some establishments, quite understandably, trying to claw back the savage losses they endured over the past two years?

The other nagging worry for restaurant owners is the news that people are investing more in their homes. Builders and interior designers are in a period of boom and figures show we are investing in more expensive kitchen gadgets. Sales of bread machines and coffee makers are up, as indeed are whole new kitchens, a market which continues to grow each year and in 2020 was worth some £2 billion.

A few decades ago one might have assumed that a trend away from restaurant dining might be a healthy thing for our nation. After all don’t all those chefs we see on TV love coating fish in spoonfuls of butter? What’s more, it’s only when we go out that we succumb to the temptations of fancy desserts and puddings with lashings of cream and chocolate.

But in fact the UK dining scene has been on a huge health kick for the past few years, with top chefs like Michel Roux Jnr deliberately cooking lighter, healthier food at his restaurant Le Gavroche than his father Albert did. And witness the growth of veggie and vegan eateries; the jury may be out on whether they are actually healthier, but the people who run them and shop in them certainly think they are.

Many top chefs, such as Michel Roux Jnr, are cooking lighter, healthier food - Andrew Crowley for The Telegraph
Many top chefs, such as Michel Roux Jnr, are cooking lighter, healthier food - Andrew Crowley for The Telegraph

But the more we eat in, the more takeaways and ready-meals we consume. And, however tasty the fish and chips, Chinese dishes or Indian meal may be, they’re likely to be more calorific.

And when it comes to booze, we all saw the figures last year. Drinking at home is cheaper so we tend to sip rather more. Indeed, according to data from the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities, 18 per cent of adults in England were drinking at increasing or higher risk in the three months to the end of October last year.

Are we nudging into that group? I need a drink to recover from the stress of not being able to book a table in a restaurant, then, relaxing into the idea that we don’t have to go out or pay for a babysitter, we celebrate the fact with another glass of expensive wine. Then to wash down the fine Phomo pho we have another glass or two, then one more for the staircase. After which, happily sloshed, we go to bed. None of which is any good for either the hospitality industry or our health. But then in the morning I’ll be up and on my Peloton. Which means I may have just killed off the gym, too.

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