At last, printed menus and a chance to wear smoky eyeshadow again

Grace Dent
·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer</span>
Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer

In the happy run-up to last Monday’s grand reopening of restaurants and pubs, a fleck of disquiet seeped into the shallower end of my brain. I have craved many things over these recent months of confinement – printed menus, petits fours, the chance to wear smoky eye kohl – but one thing I’d not missed was Fomo (that’s “fear of missing out”, should you not be up on modern acronyms). Fomo is the pernicious, all-consuming suspicion that other people elsewhere are having fun or, in my case as a restaurant critic, eating at better, more exclusive restaurants on nicer tables, which they booked ages ago. If I were to put a face on this hypothetical person, he would be a tall man with shaggy brown hair who plays jazz piano. Let’s call him Jay Rayner. OK, it is Jay Rayner, but, sometimes, it is other people.

Fomo is pathetic, but also sinister, because it sabotages your ability just quietly to “be”. Thankfully, it’s at its most acute in teenagers, which is why merely asking one of them to look directly at you for upwards of half a minute, rather than at a phone displaying constantly revolving reels of “other people having fun”, is deemed an act of war. Fomo is more complex still by your late 20s, when it comes with a second layer of the lesser-known Jomo (joy of missing out). This is when anxiety about Friday night Fomo is followed by waking brightly at 7am on a Saturday without a hangover, and with the freedom to make wholesome plans: hot yoga, bottomless brunch and, inevitably, a saunter to a farmers’ market to spend £35 on four heritage parsnips.

Pre-pandemic, and now in my 40s, I experienced both Fomo and Jomo, as well as that sharpest, diary-related thrill of all: “High as a kite on cancelled plans.” This is when the date you made six weeks ago to “catch up” at 8pm this coming Friday with an old colleague “for a bite” is cancelled by the other party at 5.20pm, leaving me to haul my grumbling knee home, unhook my bra as I walk up the corridor and drape it over the bannister before eating leftover pasta out of Tupperware in front of The One Show. Actual ecstasy. Then came Covid, and all these things were taken away.

But now they’re back, back, back. At the start of April, as whispers began to reach me of other people’s holiday cottages in the Ribble Valley and someone who’d booked the private room at a fun Soho restaurant for every weekend in May, an inner voice told me that I was already way behind. There was a level of emotional calm back in those days when nobody seemed to be having fun, except the Kardashians and the Beckhams, both of whom learned by the 10th internet pile-on to be discreet.

Stirred to join the throng of hyper-efficient planners, I booked breakfast at 9am on the opening morning at the Corinthia in Whitehall, London, in its semi-new outdoor area called “the Garden”. I would, I decided, sweep in on a crisp, sunny spring morning wearing a nice frock and strappy sandals, order eggs and drink a big breakfast bloody mary to see off the misery of the previous 12 months. If I’m honest, I touted this plan around like a weapon when anyone told me about their own arrangements. Oh, you’ve got a week booked in a sea-view suite on the Lizard peninsula, have you? Did you know about my 12 April breakfast at the Corinthia? Pardon, what’s that? Your whole family is double-vaccinated and you’ve a light pencil on a Greek holiday villa in late July? Well, did I tell you that the Corinthia garden has hot-water bottles and I’ll probably pop into Kerridge’s Bar & Grill for lunch to eat the swanky, bespoke fish and chips? The problem with this game is, there are no winners; the other problem with plans – especially post-pandemic ones – is that you actually have to go through with them: cancelling is morally iffy when every hospitality venue is already on its knees.

So, on 12 April, having alerted everyone to how clever I was to take the momentous day off, I woke up to the sort of wet, sideways snow that isn’t heavy or pretty enough to feature in a Wham! video, but will still take the shine off your scrambled eggs on sourdough because your pants are damp and your hair is welded to your head by melted hairspray.

But what struck me most as I set off on Day 1 of Life Mark II was how awry I was about re-entering the real world. And how curiously guilty I felt for carrying on into this fresh next chapter, wobbling towards the light on Bambi legs, when others I’d lost over the past year are no longer here to feel that joy. There was a certain safety in being sat night after night on the same sofa, but we can’t stay there for ever. My plan right now is to stop planning altogether, and remember that life is for living.