Dinner out with a side of car exhaust? Yes, please

I last ate out in – when was it? June? I’d have to check the credit card statement to be sure, but it was somewhere back in that slim window between Melbourne COVID-19 lockdown 1.0 and 2.0.

What’s so bad about eating outdoors?Credit:AP

The venue was a favourite local, with a Sicilian-inspired menu that varies in the seasonal vegetable details more than the big-picture mains, but I like that because you basically know what you are going to have before you sit down to order.

It’s a Friday-night go-to when you can’t be bothered cooking and want a spritz before you eat, and if it’s heaving – which it always was on a Friday night pre-COVID – they find us a couple of stools at the bar.

On this inter-lockdown night out we shared our pre-booked time slot with half a dozen other diners in a room that normally seats 40. The bar stools were off-limits, the waitstaff wore masks, and the vibe was mutual relief that we’d survived lockdown and they were still in business.

Flash forward to Premier Daniel Andrews' announcement that we wouldn’t be eating out anywhere any time soon, and Melbourne felt a collective heartsink – not just for the months of tepid takeaway stretching to the horizon, but for the havoc we felt it would wreak on Melbourne’s already battered hospitality businesses and their workers.

On Monday the state government and the City of Melbourne announced a $100-million plan to get us back eating out, albeit outdoors.

Exactly what I'd been thinking. Block off some side streets where it won’t bother the neighbours, get rid of some car parks and have tables and planters and awnings instead. Go for it.

Now, I am not going to pick a fight with Stephen Downes, who wrote this week that Melbourne wouldn’t buy this eating outside caper. Melbourne is not New York or Paris or Rome, he wrote, and Melburnians are not New Yorkers or Parisians or Romans, who like the show-off factor of eating on the street. We are sober suburbanites who take our very fine dinners out very seriously, and indoors.

He may be right about the dollar details of the government’s plan. But his vision of what Melbourne diners want felt like the golden years of The Good Food Guide circa 1980. This is 2020, circa COVID-19. This is a public health and eating out emergency. Compromises will have to be made.

After what seems like the best part of a year spent eating lukewarm takeaway out of soggy compostable cardboard containers, I’ll take some meals out with a side of car-exhaust and tram-rumble. As long as the food comes straight from the kitchen, on a plate, and even if the waiter-person is wearing a mask. Bring it on, please.

Matt Holden is a Melbourne writer.

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