I Miss Eating in a Restaurant and It Isn’t About the Food

Coronavirus

I Miss Eating in a Restaurant and It Isn’t About the Food

Illustration: Robin Chakraborty

There are only so many days an organised man can endure in a lockdown without doing some cupboard ransacking. It is during the course of one such ransacking that I found a bunch of papers that I’d almost forgotten about: my stack of restaurant bills, dating back about a decade. Each piece of paper is a prompt to a chapter in my life. I can tell myself a vivid story of the people and place and time around each of these meals. It’s how I have – unknowingly, unintentionally – punctuated my existence on earth. I chance upon a particular bill with unusually bold, time-resistant ink, looking at it with a fondness most humans associate with old photos.

I am late on a muggy Saturday March morning in 2015. I jump out of a “kaali-peeli”, that last remnant of Old Bombay, to reach another one. I’ve visited Cafe Samovar too few times, and will be visiting for the last time today, just a day before it closes for good. It’s a Bombay – yes, Bombay – institution dating back to Amol Palekar and Vidya Sinha movies, tucked inside a corridor in an art gallery.

I find myself alone in a queue that’s longer because my stomach reminds me that I have skipped breakfast. At 23, I am neither used to eating out alone nor the feeling of letting symbols of my past fade away. I feel strongly about paying my respects to an icon two streets away from where – to quote Voltaire – I wasted my youth.

I spot a group of acquaintances further ahead in the queue, who ask me to join them. Grateful for the company and for the table that’s nearly ready, I gladly do. The group and I order – my last meal at Samovar is iced tea and kheema paratha – and catch up. I get to feel 17 again, briefly in a time capsule with people I know from then in a place I began visiting during that part of my life. As far as meals go, one barely gets to eat time for lunch.

Hours later, I go home with a lined stomach, new memories, a fond goodbye, and the afterglow of a good, happy meal. A day that began as a hopeless endeavour to eat a melancholic meal by myself ended with me feeling like I belonged, fulfilled with stories and food.

All the places that we go with the people we like, becomes a part of our history.

This is my case for restaurants, that they make everything better. To me, restaurants are one of the few environments you can visit in any state, and expect to come out feeling better. Someone smiles at you (budget permitting) and asks you what you want. Then they serve it to you. You get to eat a meal you love in peace or in cacophony, in absent contemplation or in present observation, whatever you prefer. Isn’t that special?

Maybe it is because I am from a certain kind of Bombay, where we don’t seem to do a whole lot else for fun, but eating out is a cornerstone of urban life. My girlfriend and I spend weekends dropping into new cafes for coffee, casual restaurants for actual meals, and fancy restaurants mostly for dessert. On the last Friday of a month, I meet friends for drinks at the same place we’ve been going to for over five years.

The New York Times recently invited food writers to recount that one meal that they remembered, in a short anthology titled “More Than a Meal”. In “Send One Over”, Sloane Crosley recalled eating in a restaurant with a friend, spotting Amy Poehler, and – too shy to introduce themselves – sending over a tiramisù. “That tiramisù came out of the kitchen like a Frisbee… The waiter pointed in our direction. Amy smiled and stood. She gestured at us with both hands, which sobered us into the realization that we had no actual desire for this interaction. Still, we gathered our things and wove through the tables only to find: not Amy Poehler. Barely the size and shape of Amy Poehler. This is a story about the importance of getting one’s vision checked as much as it’s a story about a restaurant.”

To me, restaurants are one of the few environments you can visit in any state, and expect to come out feeling better.

My experiences might not be as outlandish, but it reminds me that where we go with the people we like, becomes a part of our history. Like heritage buildings or personal temples, but just for yourself. An experience that is unique to you, cut to fit memories like a bespoke suit.

It isn’t as if my Bombay life is solely about sit-down cafes and elaborate restaurants and a dive bar, once a month. I have eaten at neighbourhood Udipis and hawkers and non-chain cafes and bakeries my entire “youth”. That’s how I pause my day, give myself respite from a work place. Going by how many people are usually around me, I am far from the only one doing this.

Eating out anywhere means some things, but most of all, it means you are looking for a tiny bit of pleasure before you go on. It means you will overhear people, by design or accident, and it will add texture to your existence. It is where a “scene” forms. It groups people together, allowing us to co-exist temporarily and tacitly in a shared and yet individualised experience.

Restaurants are also a marker of “normal”, whatever the hell that means in these Covid-19 days. But I will know things are better in the world again when my friends can order delivery. When we can sit in a place we love and not have to think obsessively about who touched our food.

I will wait for a day when my normal is back. When people unite again over glasses of their drinks under a shared roof (sometimes temporary and tarpaulin), unafraid, mingling, looking around, observing, in place where at least one person around you is wearing something interesting. I will wait to go somewhere like I did in 2015.

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