The Australia Letter is a weekly newsletter from our Australia bureau. Sign up to get it by email. This week’s issue is written by Besha Rodell, a columnist for the Australia bureau.
The clink of glasses, the whir of an espresso machine, the laughter of other patrons, the banter of a pub owner — I can’t tell you how much I’ve missed these things. The ability to forgo the midafternoon conversation with my husband: What should we make for dinner? No dishes to do!
I have always loved restaurants, but the last few months have shown me — along with most of the world — what life would be like without them. And I realized, along with all the things I already knew, how much restaurants act as a respite from the grind of daily life.
Dining out is also my job. What does a restaurant critic do when there are no restaurants? It’s a question I’ve been asked a lot over the past three months, in private and in public.
In April, it was a topic I discussed with my American colleagues — the Times’ chief restaurant critic, Pete Wells; the California restaurant critic, Tejal Rao; and Sam Sifton, a Times assistant managing editor — as part of the ongoing TimesTalks series in which journalists from around the company discuss their work on a call that readers are invited to join.
All three of us critics have continued to cover our beats in various ways. I wrote about the halal snack pack, which — thanks to its takeaway format, comfort and status as a symbol of multiculturalism — seems like the perfect dish for this moment in history. Tejal has been reporting on myriad aspects of the industry, covering the rise in home delivery from small farms, restaurants stepping up to feed protesters, and, this week, the dissonance between fast-food companies’ messages of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and the way those same companies treat their black employees. Pete has written longingly about the restaurant dishes and experiences he misses the most.
One of the most interesting parts of that conversation with my colleagues was the moral conundrum of whether it would be responsible to dine out again when restaurants finally reopened. In the U.S., where many states are now allowing venues to reopen, that is a very tricky question. The virus is still rampant. Many workers are without health insurance but are also desperate for work — the decision to go back to cooking or waiting tables is often a choice between health and livelihood. Is it responsible to encourage a scenario that seems inherently exploitative? (Tejal wrote about this beautifully in the context of takeout food.)
Here in Australia, that conundrum barely exists. Our Covid-19 numbers are comparatively minuscule. Health care and testing are available to anyone who does become ill. And, while far from perfect, wages and labor conditions in Australia are far more equitable for hospitality workers.
And so, last week, when I was finally able to experience dining out again, I had zero qualms. Victorian restaurants are open, with many safety guards in place: hand sanitation, time limits and restrictions on numbers of guests, QR codes that take you to websites where you enter your contact details so guests can be traced in the event of a virus breakout. These things gave me comfort rather than pause. I was thrilled to be out, so much so that after my initial foray into dining — at a local pub — I found myself out again for breakfast the next morning.
(I spoke to the BBC about these experiences this week for their podcast The Food Chain — my part of the show begins at around the 19-minute mark.)
The next afternoon, my husband and I were on our way to the grocery store when we saw that the Carlton Wine Room, one of my favorite restaurants in Melbourne, was open for business. We stopped in for a glass of wine, an act that might have seemed standard a few months ago but now feels like the most indulgent luxury. As part of the current government rules, we had to order food with our wine, but that was just a bonus. As we sat in the light-filled room, munching on fried bread with anchovy, we looked at each other and sighed.
“I love it here,” my husband said. “This place is amazing.”
I couldn’t agree more.
Have you been out to eat, in Australia or elsewhere, in recent weeks? What was the experience like? Let us know at email@example.com.
Here are the stories for this week.