Unless you’ve gone the full Mosquito Coast in the last year (and are still living in hiding), it couldn’t have escaped your notice that the restaurant industry is bleeding. Thousands of people are losing their livelihoods, places that were once hailed institutions – the beating heart of a city’s culture – are closing down, and dreams are beginning to look just that little bit less optimistic.

The silver lining behind the events of the last year, of course, is that we have all rediscovered food, and bonded with its ingredients, flavours and textures in ways we have not done for generations. No matter what your level of culinary skill, chances are you’ve mastered at least one dish or bake that you couldn’t have pulled off a year ago. In a way, the fine dining industry relished this newfound enthusiasm for food. It meant that, when we welcomed you back into our world, you would return with a deeper understanding of food, and would be able to enjoy what we offered you that much more. But as weeks turned to months, and the months slowly added up to a year, many of us had to start dealing with the fact that you might not return before we had to close our doors for good.

But during such uncertain times, we can’t blame you for being cautious. After all, every time you leave your home to spend it in a public space, you are vulnerable. In the meantime, some of us have explored ways of bringing something of the magic we make to your door, boxed up and ready to plate, to which many of you asked whether this really filled the void left by the act of dining out. How could it? So much of the joy of going to a restaurant is about the escape it offers. The notion of the restaurant is fairly recent, considering that it only originated after the French Revolution in 1799. After the fall of the aristocracy in France, many out-of-work chefs had to get creative with their talents. With the right disposable income, suddenly anyone could eat like a king, which, in the minds of many, is when eating out became truly democratic.

But why do we dine out?

It’s a question that has often been asked. No, really, entire studies have been conducted on the topic, so before your eyes turn skyward as you start to form the first words of the sentence, “Well, it’s because we…”, consider what dining out means in the bigger picture. In other words, what does it mean to everyone else?

Do you eat out to get out of the house for a night? Do you do it because you need a break in routine? Perhaps you’re choosing not to cook; to rather spend your valuable “free” time doing something you enjoy a lot more. Perhaps you simply can’t cook (no one’s judging). Maybe the cost and convenience of dining out justify the energy you’ll save by not cooking at home. Is eating out like a sport to you? Does it give you fresh ideas for what you could cook at home? Does it expand your horizons by trying new things? Or, is it just a wonderful way for you to get out there and see other people? To let that social butterfly out of its cage?

Whatever your reasons for loving the theatre and fanfare of it all, there can be no better platform for indulging in the art of food. But to keep the restaurant industry going during this time of fear and prohibition – to have any restaurants left to return to – they will need all our help to stay afloat. But it’s a big wide world and knowing where to pledge your support is only one of the challenges. 

Over the course of 2020, initiatives like the EatOut Restaurant Relief Fund played a major part in helping South Africa’s eateries stay afloat, but at the dawn of the new year, their biggest challenge is finding and securing funding to aid their cause. Relief funds remain the best way of supporting the industry during a time when our focus is on keeping ourselves and our loved ones safe to be able to enjoy dining out when we find ourselves in less vulnerable times. In the meantime – while we continue to look for ways to revive the restaurant support initiatives of the past year – contacting your favourite eateries to find out if they have delivery options will go some way towards supporting them through these difficult times.