By Benjamin Norris
The twenty-first century can be a strange, baffling, stressful place to be. It’s an era of bizarre and sharp contrasts: on the one hand, we are more connected to each other and the world than ever before, and on the other… well, we’ve never been more isolated. The advent of the technological trinity – the mobile phone, the internet and social media, now handily condensed into one black plastic oblong, ever lurking in our pockets – has given us the kind of access to information our ancestors would not have been able to imagine. It allows us the opportunity to conduct video calls to colleagues in Hong Kong, cousins in Adelaide, old friends in Paris, Panama or Peru. It can hunt down old classmates and ex girlfriends, and allow us to see all the photos from their previous holiday, tell us what books they’ve been reading, and keep us updated on their political views and TV viewing habits.
And yet, and yet. We live, isolated, in ever shrinking apartments, and spend our free time alone browsing virtual friends and communicating via text. More of us than ever before spend our lunch break at our desks, munching crumbling sandwiches while tapping at keyboards, and spend our evenings glued to screens before sleeping, rising, and doing it all again. Modern life is busy. Modern life is work-driven. Modern life is not for sharing. What respite is there from this cycle of isolationism? The answer, my friends, might just come in the form of a restaurant.
A dysfunctional relationship with food
We need restaurants, more than ever before. There are plenty of them out there, offering more than enough variety to satisfy even the most fickle of palates. However, a worrying number of them are closing (globally, more than half of all new restaurants close or change hands within the first two years of business), and on top of this, there’s also a concerning rise in the number of restaurants seemingly designed for solo eaters, grabbing a quick bite before hurrying along their way. There are few things sadder than the sight of a row of individual diners, sitting on bar stools and facing the window, necking down ramen and avoiding eye contact lest they waste a precious minute on mere conversation.
It seems we’ve changed our attitude towards food over the past decade or so. Particularly in the city centres of our societies, food has either become something almost inconvenient – a necessary rush of nutrients and calories which interrupts the working day – or something fetishized. We obsess over healthy eating to the point at which we forget to take any pleasure in that which passes our lips. We also forget that the mantra ‘everything in moderation’ is actually a clarion call to the enjoyment of less-than-healthy ingredients, so long as they aren’t consumed in massive quantities or every single day. A little of what you fancy really does do you good.
Eating out, and food in general is so much more than mere re-fuelling. It’s a physical, beautiful, tangible experience, and it’s the perfect antidote to our post-millennium tension. Let’s take a look at a few reasons why we really do need restaurants more than ever before.
A chance to connect
Restaurants are communal spaces. They can and should be places where people get together around a table, and treat themselves to delicious food and stimulating conversation. The feelings of anticipation before the waiter brings your dish are a shared experience, and invite a sharing of emotion. Restaurants are also neutral spaces, neither home nor office, and as such they provide us with a chance to speak freely, laugh, cry, and general have a proper good chat.
A huge amount of effort goes into making great restaurants comfortable places to be – some offer breathtaking views, some comfortable leather banquettes, others still provide us with visual stimulation in the way of paintings, fittings or other decorations… these should be taken full advantage of. With a friend or group of mates, a date, a family member or your entire clan, you can feel completely disconnected from the hustle and bustle of the outside world while you catch up, kick back and enjoy some fine food and drink. Society has always needed these sorts of places – historians often point to the rise of the coffee houses in England and the Netherlands as the kickstarter of The Enlightenment; they offered a relaxed, neutral space in which people could come and share their ideas. The emphasis was always as much on people meeting one another as much as it was on food and drink, and we feel this is just as relevant today, if not more so. Put down the smartphone, and enjoy the sensation of existing offline for an hour or two with those closest to you.
A chance to slow down
Good restaurants make good food, and good food is made to order. Good food takes time. This is not an inconvenience, it’s a mark of quality. Instead of looking at your watch or catching up on work, the restaurant is presenting you with a time and place in which you can exist in the present moment, enjoy some conversation, or look forward to what is coming. We live lives that move too fast; the restaurant is a place where slow is special.
A chance to indulge more than just one sense
Our free time is mainly dominated by our sense of sight. We watch things, read things, and fill our heads with YouTube clips and listicles. Restaurants bring the other key senses – taste and smell – into the foreground, and give you the chance to remember just how exciting, how evocative and how seductive these senses can be. Discovering a new flavour is a thrilling experience. Our body and brain reacts to taste sensations in fascinating ways, as our pleasure sensors are activated by food… especially when it has been lovingly and expertly prepared, and packs a punch of flavours we might not have encountered before.
Eating out = entertainment
We’ll happily hand over wads of cash to go and watch the latest movie in blockbuster-worthy 3D at the local multiplex, or stand in the terraces after forking out for a major league sports event. Some of us may enjoy going to the theatre, catching an art exhibition or a concert of a favourite band. Yet all of those forms of entertainment – among many others – are essentially passive. Eating out is interactive, physically involving, and can be equally exciting, equally entertaining. Modern gastronomy loves a bit of drama and theatricality, and can be even more memorable than any of the aforementioned forms of entertainment. What’s even better is the fact that you can get involved; whether by sharing plates with a friend, chatting to the waiting staff, or by returning on multiple occasions and trying everything on the menu… restaurants genuinely can and do offer something completely unique for those looking to change things up a bit.