Last week, I ate some of the best pizza of my life.
The restaurant: Monsterella, an easygoing pizzeria filled with bentwood chairs, black banquettes and BYO-fuelled cheer in the inner-west Perth suburb of Wembley. The pizza: puffy, tanned and blistered around the edges (the cornicione, as it’s known in Italy); supple enough to fold a slice up like a paper plane; yet sturdy enough to support its precious cheese, tomato, ham and pineapple payload.
It was my first meal at a restaurant in 58 days, and as glorious a return to dining out as I could have hoped for.
Restaurants, cafes and bars in some parts of Australia resumed dine-in service in mid-May, as part of the gradual nationwide easing of Covid-19 restrictions. In Western Australia, the second phase of eased restrictions kicked in on May 18 – fortuitously, also my birthday – allowing up to 20 guests per venue. (Venues in Sydney, Brisbane, Darwin and Adelaide have also reopened for limited dine-in trade, and Melbourne is counting down the days till its June 1 reboot.) Thanks to my thoughtful, organised girlfriend, we – and four friends – were lucky to get into Monsterella on reopening night.
Like most food writers, I clocked a decent amount of time pre-Covid-19 in restaurants, bars and cafes. I like to think I have a reasonable grasp of the rituals and rhythms of dining out. But after two months holed up at home, the mind forgets things. Like tracksuit pants and hoodies not being appropriate dining-out attire. Or the pressure that comes with deciding what to eat. (“You’re just saying yes to everything I’m suggesting, aren’t you?” joked Monsterella co-owner Tania Nicolo as she took our order.) And the negotiations and smartphone maths involved in splitting the bill. Heck, I was so excited about my first post-lockdown restaurant meal I forgot to take a photo of said pizza for Instagram.
But I did remember to photograph my friends. Laughing. Doing their best Blue Steel. Giving the camera the thumbs up. Their animated, occasionally out-of-focus smiling faces threatening to tumble off the edge of the frame. I just flicked through the shots from dinner (again) and smiled. Food and drink might be the currency of the hospitality industry, but the experience of dining out is about more than what’s on the plate, in the glass, or sprinkled on the smashed-avo toast.
It’s about the warmth of the welcome. It’s about how much a venue cares about supporting local producers and produce. It’s about discovering a new dish, ingredient or cocktail (or a musician to follow on Spotify). It’s about admiring art on walls and learning about new creatives to watch. It’s about the excitement of running into friends and impromptu catch-ups. It’s about flirting with the wait staff. It’s about the unexpected places conversations can take us, weaving in and out of topics before returning to the starting point. It’s about the way your body softens halfway through that second bottle of pinot. It’s about sharing a table with friends.
Yes, these pleasures – like the restaurants, cafes and bars we love – might look and feel a little different with fewer tables and seatings. But even with these restrictions, breaking bread, pulling corks and sharing conversation in public is a joy. A privilege. A fundamental and fun part of life that Zoom, takeaway containers and online yoga classes can’t quite replicate. Dining rooms, corner pubs and beachside cafes aren’t packed the way we remember – they can’t be – but their vitals are good. I can only wonder how good dining out is going to feel post-Covid-19.
Although the government has given us the green light to dine out again, it’s now on us, the patrons, to do the right thing. Not just in terms of keeping the curve flat, but also in terms of helping the hospitality industry recover. We need to be patient as venues – many with hastily installed booking systems – navigate the current situation. To accept with grace that dining out, for now, means sitting down at 6pm on a Thursday and finishing within 90 minutes so the venue can turn the table around for the next sitting. To consider waiting until venues are back in full flight before redeeming gift vouchers. To commit to showing up when we make a reservation. (No-shows are already happening at venues that can only seat 10? Really?). To maybe not be so militant with our dietary requirements. To understand that, as far as dining out goes, there’s a new “normal”.
Ask most people in hospitality and they’ll tell you, even if only off the record, about the flaws in the industry. Exploited labour. Dodgy dealings. A disheartening race to the bottom when it comes to the price of food and how much people are willing to pay to eat out. Covid-19 wasn’t the straw that broke the camel’s back: it just highlighted the fragility of the dining ecosystem. This rebuilding stage offers a chance for everyone involved in the industry – the diners, the chefs, the farmers, the winemakers, the sommeliers, the writers, the publicists, the photographers, the bartenders – to rethink our role in the food chain and the way we do things. To draw up some kind of road map to safeguard the future of hospitality in Australia. We just had a taste of what it would be like to go without restaurants, cafes and bars for two months – and it sucked. Imagine what it would be like if they disappeared for good?