From the start, travel in the age of covid-19 was going to feel like an awkward first date, and dining is no exception. Once care-free evenings, or power lunches are now filled with new protocols, and for many, fear of the unknown is relegating dining plans to home. For the millions in the restaurant business, that’s bad news.
After nearly five months without sitting down in a restaurant, an important send off merited a celebratory trip out, so I headed for Le Gavroche, the Roux helmed, trusted old hand in London fine dining, with two Michelin Stars to show for it…
The restaurant was my top choice anyway, but perusing around at other potential options was nothing short of sad. So many places remain “temporarily closed”, and too many of those may not be temporary.
The few Michelin level spots which are open seem to only focus on dinner now, without enough demand at lunch during mid week. It’s sad times indeed, but that’s nothing a good meal and a glass of wine can’t help with…
The experience was everything I’d dreamt it would be during months of staring at the mounting pile of dishes in my own home, reminiscing of dining during more care free times.
I got the inspiring food, the restaurant buzz and the distanced social interaction of it all in droves, but perhaps most crucially, Le Gavroche paired it all with seamless safety measures, which allowed the care free feelings to flow equally with the wine.
It all started with a thank you. Scratch that, it started with a welcome, a squirt from an elegant bottle of hand sanitizer, and then a heartfelt thank you.
After an uneventful and thankfully empty tube ride to Marble Arch, I ambled my way to the iconic Le Gavroche entrance. A dedicated hostess opened the door, eliminating the need to touch a shared surface, and after pleasantries, directed my dining companion and I to the hand sanitizer.
After a few moments in the Le Gavroche upstairs bar, which is the kind of place where a Sean Connery Bond would explain to the Daniel Craig Bond why white dinner jackets are necessary after six, and why a martini should be shaken, not stirred, we were guided downstairs to the equally classic dining room.
Creating a premium dining experience which feels both secure, but also luxurious enough to be worth paying for is no small feat in current times, and the restaurant is running a master class.
There’s nothing premium about the look of plastic screens mounted on rubber blocks, and for a restaurant that charges £75 per head for lunch, and over £200 per person for a dinner tasting menu, that can be a problem. No here though.
Le Gavroche has managed to avoid any unsightliness by cutting table counts in half, and creating custom screens, built into painted wood to match the decor, for added covid-19 security. They just look like mirrors, but actually help to keep gossip between tables to a minimum.
Happily, wine is still served in immaculately cleaned glasses, food is still elegantly presented on fine plating and silverware is still…. silverware. The entire team in the restaurant wore masks the entire time, though diners typically don’t. There are a few nice new touches resulting from covid-19, which I actually preferred.
All guests are invited to join the Le Gavroche menu network, which gives access to wifi to browse the menu. If you have a problem with this, which one rather bubbly couple seemed to, there are printed menus to read from. The wine list also received a modern update.
The sommelier will bring you an iPad, freshly wiped down of course, with the full wine list on board. It’s all very well organized, and the discussions about just how infinitely wealthy you are, before helping to find you a wine flowed much the same as before covid-19.
The main event: the food. After months of home cooking, which steadily improved during this unprecedented time, a meal cooked, plated and cleaned by someone else felt magical. Le Gavroche doesn’t bend in its uncompromising justice done to French haute cuisine, and so many bites from the lunch are memorable days later.
The fregola with chicken skin, you simply must try, but really, there’s just so much worth eating.
Fine dining may have a few new modern twists, plating aside, but not all of them are bad. Done right, as this experience was, I felt just as safe eating out. I loved to see a restaurant so steeped in history and classic dining embrace technology to keep people safe.
When I went to another more every day meal the next day, with plastic cutlery and proper glassware for white wine, it made me appreciate the little details in the experience which added up not only to a delicious meal, but a secure one, which still felt special.
Nothing about fine dining inherently makes it safer dining, but with more on the table, quite literally, it seems extra thought is being put in. Perhaps, not a whole lot unlike the food. As good food tends to do, people were happy both inside and out, and that’s not something you can always say these days.