Sitwell’s History of Eating Out Is Almost as Good as the Real Thing

Restaurants almost everywhere remain closed because of the coronavirus and that’s terribly dull if you love eating out. A new book celebrating the history of eateries — blending the pleasures of the table with social interaction — is beautifully timed to keep your favorite dishes fresh in your mind and get you planning for how and where you’re going to indulge when the lockdown finally ends.

Shared meals outside the home, whether it’s fine dining or at a gastropub or cafe, are among the things some people living under lockdown miss most. The Restaurant, A History of Eating Out, by William Sitwell is about as close as you can get to the fun of eating out right now, unless you are one of those people who enjoys virtual dinner parties. (I dislike dinner parties, so count me out.)

Sitwell is a witty writer who understands the need to entertain, and this book might best be described more as a romp through a couple of millennia of eating out, and a celebration of its pleasures, rather than as a history in the more conventional sense. He also looks at the future, a huge subject as restaurants searching for ways to reopen and thrive in the time of the coronavirus will probably have to consider screens to shield staff, waiters wearing masks and latex gloves and tables set at least two meters apart.

The challenge will be keeping the experience fun, while social distancing and the lower demand from customers as the virus lingers could make it hard to get enough people through the door.

Most of us have early restaurant memories and more recent ones, too, of romantic encounters or of happy times with friends and family. Eating out is a huge part of human culture and Sitwell taps into that and brings it to life with colorful anecdotes.

Sitwell, 50, edited Waitrose Food magazine for 16 years and is now a restaurant critic for the Daily Telegraph. He’s also a regular on MasterChef, where his observations can be as sweet and sour as a Chinese takeaway.

The book starts with an inebriated diner weaving his way through the streets of Pompeii just before Vesuvius erupts in 79 AD. Sitwell then makes his way, in quick succession, through the Ottoman Empire, Medieval England, the Coffee House Revolution, the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution before arriving in the 20th century, where he zigzags around like that first tipsy diner.

Chapter headings — including the Invention of the Taco Machine;  the Invention of the Sushi Conveyor Belt; Le Gavroche Opens in London; and Chez Panisse Opens in the U.S. — give the reader clues on his scattershot approach to history, and the book is all the better for his irreverence. The Restaurant is like a series of entertaining magazine features drawn together by the wit of Sitwell’s narrative. 

The reader doesn’t get bored because Sitwell really doesn’t care to cover all the bases, preferring curious and interesting tales and tasty tidbits to dull analysis. I’m personally fascinated by subjects such as the genesis of the sushi conveyor belt — a restaurateur’s light-bulb moment when visiting the Asahi brewery — and hadn’t realized how very late this reached the U.K. It was only in 1994 thatMoshi Moshi, near Liverpool Street station, brought the so-called kaiten sushi bar to London.

Sitwell is strong on the culinary revolution that has transformed London into a dining destination. He shows an understanding of the forces at work and the chefs — including the Roux brothers, Pierre Koffmann, Simon Hopkinson, Sally Clarke and Alastair Little — who played an important part in that change.

I’m not sure I am so convinced by his thoughts on the future of the restaurant. Sitwell gives a big nod to vegan cuisine, which might not be unconnected with the fact he won some infamy (and lost a job) for joking about “killing vegans one by one.” (I remember the very first occasion I met a vegan, in 1977, at a time when even vegetarianism was a bit out there.)

I’d rather eat in restaurants than read about them, but I found this book more entertaining than many a restaurant meal and it’s something to keep us going until everything reopens.

The Restaurant, by William Sitwell, is published by Simon & Schuster at £20.

Richard Vines is Chief Food Critic at Bloomberg. Follow him on Twitter@richardvines and Instagram@richard.vines.

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