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I’m a key worker get me out of here! | Grace Dent on restaurants

As I lunched on a packet of ready-buttered Soreen malt loaf, bought from a deserted WHSmith at London City Airport, I was visited again by gentle, yet nevertheless saddening end-of-the-world vibes. Not that Soreen doesn’t make a fine emergency snack: I could hurl that dark, squidgy goodness down my gullet by the yard.

The fact is that, in normal times, finding food on the go is never difficult. Airports are especially adept at removing money from my wallet, catering to my whims and lulling me into that hazy sweet spot when mealtimes are irrelevant and it seems perfectly normal to be slurping Wagamama ramen and drinking sake at 7am. Because why not? It must be dinner time somewhere.

But on this particular day at City Airport, almost everyone involved with the country’s food industry was furloughed, on very reduced hours or had been let go in the latest round of downsizings. Travelling around Britain for work during the pandemic, I’m reminded constantly of how curious and muted a land is without restaurants, bars and cafes.

Love or loathe the likes of Pret, Costa Coffee and Yo! Sushi, but their neon lights would glow as I walked along high streets, through shopping malls or to my aeroplane, signifying that human life was here and that everyday life was functioning. Lights on in a distant Pret have saved my sad soul on more than one occasion, as I’ve fallen through the door and taken the last pea and mint soup. I now often wonder if normal will ever happen again.

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