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XX Notes: Eating Out, the May 2021 Experiences

Published on: 11 May, 2021
Updated on: 13 May, 2021

Maria Rayner

Maria Rayner‘s observational column from a woman’s perspective…

Frost in May, not the 1933 novel by Antonia White about a borderline abusive childhood in a convent school, but the 2021 weather in Surrey.

With more than a year spent living under some manner of social restrictions, comparisons with 2020 are now easy. Last Spring, I would have been deeply upset that my gamble of planting out the veggie patch in April had resulted in the young shoots shrivelling in the cold snap.

A very wintry April day

This year, the kitchen garden is lying fallow, my enthusiasm for the good life over and eating out is again on the menu. When I can get a booking.

Have you taken the plunge? Many of us would rather eat at home, perhaps venturing to the takeaway, than sit under a gazebo with the regulation “50% of the area of their walls open at all times whilst in use” [from Restaurants, pubs, bars and takeaway services – Working safely during coronavirus (COVID-19) – Guidance – GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)].

Soon, we should be able to eat indoors again but I have already eaten out four or five times since the ban on eating outdoors at a pub, café or restaurant was lifted in April. The experience has been mixed. There are four areas of concern: booking, ambiance, service and quality of food.

Most outdoor eateries are not open for walk-ups. We have been turned away from a pub in Ash on a sunny afternoon despite there being many vacant tables. I bet they were as gutted as us, but skeleton staffing would have meant a lengthy wait.

Our favourite beach bar in Cornwall was open to anyone who could secure a table, demonstrating why rugby is such a popular sport in the county, my hand-off is now perfect.

View from the Cornish beach bar – definitely worth the scrum for tables!

Booking systems vary. Most have gone online which is OK, if you want to book only one table. A bug in the system secured me three tables at The White Hart in Witley. No wonder the manager called to check I was going to turn up.

His other reason for checking may have been the weather. Frost hasn’t been the only extreme element to batter us this Spring. Hail, wind gusts up to 42mph, April showers, all have tested the hardy alfresco diner.

That evening the forecast was unpredictable. We’d planned an evening cycle followed by a pub supper, but those plans changed when a mad 15 minutes turned the green grass white.

For the Bank Holiday we chose The Red Lion in Hampshire for a birthday lunch. There was no attempt to provide cover so we gamely packed our waterproofs, just in case, and chose burgers. At least we could pick them up to eat in the car if the skies turned nasty.

The Mulberry is a different story. There is a fancy remote-control awning over some of the outside space and some non-eco-friendly but essential patio heaters providing little more than quaint orange lighting rather than heat. Ne’er cast a cloot as they say, probably in Chiddingfold.

Al fresco dining – the only option in the last month

On to service. It used to come with a smile but is often prefaced now with “Have you scanned the app?” I’ve still not checked that it’s a government regulation. How can it be when it’s not compulsory to carry a smart phone? Yet.

But last year when we were eating out to help out, only one of the party had to zap, this year everyone must. Even if you’ve booked on the pub app. Where is all this valuable data going?

We’ve had drinks removed, 50-minute waits, lost orders, with an estimated 30% of hospitality workers coming from EU and most not returning, many companies are struggling to recruit to a traditionally casual industry, and this is a month when students are tied up with exams.

Food quality should be OK though. Back to Cornwall: the beach bar is our favourite because the portions are large enough to share and it tastes like it costs. Not this year. My shopping bill tells me prices are up so it should be no surprise restaurants are feeling the pinch too.

And it must be really hard to judge quantities when you’re reliant on the weather and your staff are all new starters, or very rusty.

Maybe all those lockdown Riverford recipe boxes have raised expectations in my tastebuds as well as improving my cooking skills. The burger was good, but we’ve mainly been eating veggie so meat is a treat, and a lot of the meals have been disappointing.

I’ve yet to eat out in Guildford so nothing to report back. I did have a great takeaway ciabatta with fantastic service from Muffin Break in the Friary on a grab-and-dash shopping trip, so three cheers there.

My friend says there’s not a lot of seating about for those who’d like to sit down with their coffee, but Coffee Culture in Angel Gate comes highly recommended. Roll on May 17 and a return to inside eating.

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