I love restaurants because I’m greedy. But it’s not just that. There’s a theatre to it. When restaurants work at their best, you close the door on the world outside and are taken somewhere else for two or three hours. Plus they’re brilliant for disclosure: you get people to tell you stuff over restaurant tables. That’s why Out To Lunch, my podcast, works so well, because you put well-known people at a table, you start feeding them, and they forget the microphone's there and start to talk.
Of course, I also love the food and not having to do the washing up, and – you can smell my privilege from a mile away – I can afford to do it, even if you didn't allow for the expense account. But restaurants are separate spaces in our lives – and through lockdown that’s an experience we missed. In Chewing The Fat, there’s a piece I wrote about the enduring appeal of gastropubs in the UK. I spoke to one restaurateur who said: “We're not selling steaks and wine, we’re selling atmosphere and a room you want to be in.” And for the whole of lockdown, we couldn't be in the room and I think that was distressing for a lot of people, as we are social, herd animals, who want to be in the pack.
Chewing The Fat emerged out of the first lockdown. I was fighting to find a way to fill a restaurant column when I didn't have any restaurants to review. I started to look at the experience from all directions: the thing about restaurants is they are not – and never have been – just about food. I started rereading my enormous file of columns from Observer Food Monthly and thought, if you take out the newsy ones, there’s a lot here that hangs together very successfully. The result was my lockdown project, putting these together in a way that brings the whole experience of the food in our lives to life – if that doesn’t sound too pretentious!
When restaurants reopened in July 2020, I said I didn't think there was a place to be adversely negative in my reviews. But that wasn’t about giving good reviews to bad places, it meant being even more clear on what I was writing about and not writing up the really bad places… until we got to The Polo Lounge a few weeks back – which went beyond bad into another category – and deserved to have the light shone on it. I've always said that if you're going to punch, then punch up. And when it comes to punching up, you can't get much higher than the ninth floor of The Dorchester. The slightly disturbing thing is just how much appetite there was for that. A solid restaurant review of mine gets 150,000 to 200,000 page views. This one, under a week later is already at 809,000. It’s not the biggest – that was Le Cinq, which has well over 2.5m now. In the comments, I referenced that scene in Gladiator, when Russell Crowe stands before the crowd of the Coliseum having beheaded someone shouting: “Are you not entertained?” But part of that review is that I feel they absolutely deserved it and I was angry. Proper angry. The reality is that in normal times, the vast majority of my reviews are positive. You can't just go around hating everything and I don’t. I love restaurants, and that’s why I do the job.