For months, our restaurant critic craved a boozy night out with friends. Fifteen attempts later, she’s ready to share her advice

On the WhatsApp group I used as a life-support system during lockdown, a recurring fantasy kept us going in the days when online Scrabble and swapping tips on sourcing hand gel could not: a dream of doughballs. When all this blows over, my friends and I agreed, we’ll go to Pizza Express. Midweek, table for four, Sloppy Giuseppes, numerous warm bottles of Gavi di Gavi. We’ll laugh about this one day, we said, weakly, as the chat flickered between closed schools, locked-down care homes, skipped chemo and the loneliness of isolation. It was never really about the doughballs; they represented a former carefree life.

When every restaurant in Britain closed, from high street to haute cuisine, many of us suddenly saw what eating together gives us. This was true even for me, someone who eats out for a living, and who in the first few weeks enjoyed the break. But there’s a joy and a rhythm in sitting with others, sipping, nibbling and laughing – one you’ll never get from an ever-flickering chat app. Eating together is where actual life happens. Miles away from my family, I missed desperately the way my brother David side-orders jalapeños on everything and refuses to share pudding. I missed stabbing away at his sticky toffee pudding with a spoon, quacking, “You’re worse now than when you were a child!” because we’ve done this for more than 40 years. I longed to sit in peaceable silence with my teenage niece, Lola, as she ogles TikTok from behind a McNugget box. If restaurants could just reopen, I thought, the world would feel sane again. But then they did, and for the first few meals I felt worse. Six weeks later, here’s what I’ve learned.

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