I love eating at restaurants, and it’s not just because of my job as a travel and food writer. It’s been nearly a year since COVID-19 upended our world—work-from-home, travel bans, lives and livelihoods lost. The restaurant industry was hit hard worldwide; Momofuku’s David Chang had painted a grim picture of the industry’s future in an article for The New York Times Magazine last year and was sadly proven correct.
In the absence of (enough) government assistance, many restaurants simply shut shop globally, especially the smaller establishments and stand-alone ones. Even as lockdowns lifted and restaurants started reopening, it’s hardly been business as usual. Fewer tables, packaged cutlery, and more hygiene products have become a norm.
Some countries like New Zealand, Australia, and Vietnam have achieved a semblance of ‘return to normal’ while in others like the U.S.A., U.K., and countries across the EU, restaurants are primarily open for delivery and takeaway or outdoor dining. Of course, rules keep changing as the virus surges on, and despite the good news on the vaccine front, it is likely that we will be social distancing at least until 2022 as Harvard scientists had predicted last year.
While the future remains uncertain (or cautiously optimistic, depending on your worldview), I find myself reminiscing about meals past—about warm, inviting spaces, about the clink of glasses and cutlery, about lively conversations all around—everything that makes dining out so special. I have had several memorable restaurant meals over the years. Here are just eight of them, those that I look forward to revisiting when the world is back to “normal.” Or at least to a new normal.
In the shadow of the Pantheon, Rome’s best-preserved ancient monument stands another institution. Open since 1961, Armando serves typical Roman cuisine in its cosy, 14-table, wood-panelled restaurant. Don’t miss the Roman favourite cacio e pepe, a simple pasta dish with Pecorino cheese and pepper, and the carbonara with egg and guanciale (cured pork cheek). Definitely order the artichokes stewed in mint and garlic if they are in season (December to March/early April). Wash it all down with a glass or two of local Lazio wine; ask the server for recommendations and you’ll not be disappointed. Reservations essential; armandoalpantheon.it
Leça da Palmeira, Portugal
Renowned Portuguese Chef Rui Paula’s two Michelin-starred restaurant located just 30 minutes outside Porto offers a culinary experience like no other. The building itself is striking, a mid-century Álvaro Siza creation that seems to jut out from the rocky outcrop on which it is built. The polished redwood interiors look out over the Atlantic Ocean, and spectacular sunsets. Tasting menus celebrate Portugal’s incredible produce, meat, and seafood. The artistically presented dishes are full of vibrant Portuguese flavours with a dash of punchy Asian influences thrown in. Expect innovative bites like a cornet of mackerel and fresh yoghurt, eel with veal and celery, hake with goose barnacles, arroz de lula (rice-stuffed squid), and more; casadechadaboanova.pt
Rovinj is unabashedly touristy, which is not surprising given its colourful old town, labyrinthine cobbled streets, and a prime location on the Istrian Peninsula overlooking the Adriatic. Its harbour is absolutely teeming with restaurants of varying quality. Konoba Kantinon (Kantinon Tavern), located in a former wine cellar, stands out for its old-school ambience and fresh seafood. If the day is nice, grab a table outdoors on the promenade with a sweeping view of the old town and the soaring bell tower of the Church of St. Euphemia. Order the Kantinon Selection (a platter of seafood, sausages, Istrian prosciutto, and cheese), followed by maneštra (a hearty vegetable stew often with dried meat in it), and the baked monkfish with fennel and zucchini. Raise a toast to the setting sun with a glass of local Malvasia white wine; Obala Pina Budicina 18; +385-52816075
There’s more to Bengali food than ilish paturi and kosha mangsho. The state offers several micro-cuisines like the almost forgotten Sheherwali cuisine of the Murshidabad Jains, a curious mix of hardy Marwari fare and a touch of Nawabi flair, all amalgamated with Bengali spices. Get a taste of it at Royal Vega, the vegetarian-only restaurant at ITC Royal Bengal. Here, a sumptuous thali awaits, packed with dishes such as parwal dabdaba (a dry preparation of pointed gourd), kadaliphal tarkari (unripe banana in tomato and cashew gravy), and lauki boot dal (tamarind flavoured bottle gourd and chana dal tempered with cumin and asafoetida). End your meal with the kachche aam ki kheer—an unusual pudding made by simmering grated unripe mango with milk and delicately flavouring it with saffron; itchotels.in
Tel Aviv, Israel
With a fabulous beachfront location and a stellar Mediterranean menu, Manta Ray is one of Tel Aviv’s most popular restaurants. Its indoor and outdoor spaces are usually packed with boisterous crowds of locals and tourists partaking in a variety of mezze—fresh salads (shrimp with spinach, cauliflower and anchovies, goat cheese with beet, etc.) and dips (hummus, eggplant mousse, tzatziki, etc.) that come out on a huge tray accompanied by Balkan bread and top-quality olive oil. The restaurant is known for its seafood so take your pick of roasted squid with chimichurri, baked sea bream, and more; mantaray.co.il
New York City, U.S.A.
New York’s fast-paced and ever-evolving (at least before COVID-19) food scene is legendary, yet a few classics continue to endure. Flatiron favourite Gramercy Tavern is one such stalwart. Divided into a cheerful tavern in the front and a lavish dining room at the back, the focus here is firmly on hyper-seasonal fare. Dishes change often, even on the dining room’s multi-course, prix-fixe menu that can best be described as wholesome American with a modern flair. The desserts are stellar as is the cheeseboard and wine list, and the Michelin-starred restaurant is known for its warm and personal service. Reservations are required for the dining room, while the tavern is walk-in only; gramercytavern.com
In the chaos of Jaipur, the 180-year-old Samode Haveli is an oasis, a former townhouse for the royal family that is now a boutique hotel. Its former dining hall, exquisitely bedecked with colourful, hand-painted murals serves as a restaurant. Food goes beyond the standard daal-baati-churma and gatte ki sabzi trope. Their Rajasthani thaal draws from royal family recipes and features dishes such as mutton dahi bada (succulent meat patty with spiced yoghurt), murg ka sula (smoked chicken kebab), baingan ki burrani (roasted aubergine dip), and dhungari gwar fali (cluster beans smoked in mustard oil). Of course, there are assorted breads and a fragrant sabz yakhni pulao, with a creamy gulab ki kheer to end the meal; samode.com
Melbourne’s extensive and eclectic range of restaurants makes it difficult to pick favourites, what with its restaurants celebrating everything from modern Australian to Asian fare. Turkish cuisine has been a fairly recent addition to the city’s immigrant-heavy dining scene. Hop on a tram in CBD and head down to suburban Balaclava to savour inventive Turkish cuisine at the Nigella Lawson-approved Tulum Turkish Restaurant. Expect dishes like chilled toasted almond soup with kohlrabi, manti (Turkish dumplings), beef short ribs with date jam, etc. All of this accompanied by excellent Turkish wines and you have a meal you’ll not soon forget. Save space for the tahini ice cream with eggplant mousse and thank me later; tulumrestaurant.com.au