Well, that didn’t quite go according to plan did it? This time last year I was reminiscing on the preceding 12 months and commenting that “it’s been quite an eventful year”, blissfully ignorant of the incoming tsunami of unwanted eventfulness that would make 2020 a pretty bruising experience for all of us, including a now shrunken hospitality industry. I usually bemusedly take a rough tally of the times I eat out in a calendar year (considerably north of 200 last few years) but that act of indulgence feels somewhat redundant in a year that’s seen restaurants forcibly closed for sweeping portions of it. That said, the relentless ability to adapt that those involved in food and drink seem to have in spades hasn’t left me without plenty of treats… though plating many of them at home has brutally exposed the quality of my tableware!
The truth of it is that this has been a year that’s going to take some time to recover from for businesses and individuals, both financially and emotionally. All of the insidious inequalities that we’ve built into our society over the last couple of centuries have been wrenched open by this pandemic, which may not distinguish based on class in itself but is directed to do so by our economic and geographic makeup. I can’t remember where I heard this year described as as “the well off being paid to stay at home while receiving deliveries from those less well off” but there’s certainly some truth in that.
None of that is to say that this year has been bereft of enjoyment. I’ve been lucky enough to enjoy some fabulous food in ways that I wouldn’t have expected a year ago and been forced into reprioritisations domestically that have improved my living situation (the house snag list is notably smaller than this time last year).The personal and societal challenge we now face is to learn how to unpick the changes forced on us by necessity over the last nine months into positive and sustainable changes to our behaviour and environment. I ended last year’s retrospective by saying “I can’t wait to see what the new decade brings. It’s hard to see it being more eventful than the last one!”. Let’s hope we’ve seen the really eventful bit already.
In retrospect, this was a gloriously average and mundane start to the year compared to what followed. A lunch at Kalpakavadi set a high watermark for value at less than £7 for a selection of curries, while visiting Leeds to check out vegan dishes at Comptoir Libanais comfortably justified the journey. Middlethorpe Hall compelled me into more formal clothing than I’m generally comfortable in for a tasting menu and another sortie beyond the outer ring road took me to The Twine and Barrel for some gastropub styled fun. All in all a rather low key month that ended with a trip to Buxton to catch up with some of my oldest friends, soon to become a presence on a monitor rather than in a pub.
The first couple of days of February finished off my trip to Buxton amid portentously stormy weather and a fry up at the amusingly named “Tradesman’s Entrance” cafe. Street Cleaver made their most recent appearance in York with a stunningly realised dippy eggs and soldiers dish at The Fossgate Social and I was happy to discover a cracking new brunch venue at Ingleby Arncliffe near Northallerton, The Joiners Shop. Ippuku Tea House made a perfect venue to catch up with a friend, who incidentally has a book out – perfect for picking up with any Christmas vouchers you may have burning a hole in your pocket. Grantley Hall is a venue that’s been at the top of my list since its opening and a trip to one of its restaurants didn’t disappoint, with Restaurant 88 delivering on its promise before I was lucky enough to enjoy a tour of this stunning facility. Baby Fork enjoyed her second birthday at the end of the month, while we were grateful for a few hours later that day to recover from that chaos with dinner at The Old House.
This was the month that 2020 really went sideways. While the first couple of weeks took place in relative, if slightly uneasy normality, the background chatter about a disconcerting new virus in China quickly increased to the point of drowning out many elements of regular life. The Grand Cookery School celebrated its birthday with an appropriately indulgent beef Wellington class and York Restaurant Week took place before the situation started to really deteriorate. We also took our last train ride for quite some time, with Rudy’s Pizza being the destination. Lunch at the Bay Horse in Goldsborough was a quiet affair notable conversation at the adjacent table being dominated by Coronavirus while the last meal before we were directed to deprive the restaurant industry of its income was comfort food at a largely deserted Fancy Hanks. Cancelling York Chocolate Festival, the organisation of which I was involved in, felt like a bit of a landmark moment but the conversations I had with restaurateurs and publicans in the week preceding lockdown really put things into perspective. The number of people I saw reduced from their usual ebullient selves to consuming anxiety was upsetting in the extreme, something mitigated to an extent by the introduction of the furlough scheme. The month ended with a first glimpse of the hospitality industry’s adaptability courtesy of a steak dinner to prepare at home from The Whippet Inn, my first look at a style of dining that would become a staple of the coming months.
With our wings clipped, this month found us exploring the minutae of our local geography in ways that we’d never anticipated before. Our daily permissible exercise invariably took us to “The High Bit” – in actuality a slightly raised drain cover in the middle of a field from which Baby Fork would take immense pleasure in repeatedly leaping from. I was lucky enough to enjoy a few examples of a chocolate themed beer from Brew York that had been brewed in collaboration with York’s Chocolate Story and had been intended to stock the bar at York Chocolate Festival, these made suitable drinking to accompany consideration of the growing range of at-home dining options I would enjoy sampling before long. One of the first innovations to spring from all this was the the virtual wine & cheese tasting from Love Cheese, which featured a cheese delivery to be enjoyed while taking tasting notes broadcast over Facebook. Le Cochon Aveugle and Roots both turned their hand to food served at home rather than in a restaurant with predictably strong results and Yuzu Streetfood started knocking out a roaring trade from the kitchen at Brew York. On a more personal note, this month brought the situation closer to home with the death of an elderly relative in a care home. I’m certainly not alone in having to watch a funeral on a laptop this year, but I can certainly vouch for that being just as unpleasant experience as it sounds.
Having enjoyed the Love Cheese wine & cheese tasting so much first time round, we snapped up the opportunity to repeat the experience before also seeing another slant on the at home cheese tasting experience with Homage 2 Fromage, who presented it via the medium of a great fun board game which I obviously won. Beer deliveries continued courtesy of Brew York and Ainsty Ales who were both doing their best to make up for the lack of business from pubs while the boredom really started to come in, manifesting itself through an uncharacteristically organised spice cupboard and the presence of a goat on a Zoom “pub” visit with some friends. This month saw the stream of at home offerings really pick up the pace with some superb creations, Zaap Thai in particular impressing by bringing a nationally available range of premium ready meals to market in double quick time. Source did a hugely impressive job of transplanting the feel of their food into a picnic that took full advantage of the good weather and it was a pleasure to make the acquaintance of Hog & Apple catering, who started delivering fantastic Sunday roasts in the absence of events at which they usually cater. Special mention should go to the at home tasting menu from Vice & Virtue, which was eerily close to their inventive restaurant menus created by Jono Hawthorne who’s just put on a sterling display to make the final week of Masterchef Professionals.
Our inglorious Prime Minister had initially been confident that we could “send this virus packing in 12 weeks”, which would have been roughly this month so at the time it was little surprise to see things start to edge back toward opening the economy a touch, though in retrospect we know that was the first of several false dawns. The first culinary treat of the month came courtesy of Ambiente’s heat at home offering, the selection of their greatest hits being comfortingly familiar. Skosh took their time to enter the at home fray, paying characteristic attention to every detail to successfully align the experience as closely as possible with that of visiting their restaurant. The next Sunday roast to grace our table came from somewhere a little off my radar, but Kennedy’s dropped off an absolute treat. The Chopping Block at Walmgate Ale House is very familiar to me for a number of reasons but a new French themed menu was the perfect excuse to check in with their new range of dishes. One thing that York is poorer for this year is the exit of Street Cleaver and Born to Lose from the city to set up a new venture in Hull called The Social Distortion so as travel restrictions eased, we made the trip over toward the coast to remind ourselves just what the city was missing out on, plenty as it turned out including a stunning Banh Mi. That easing of restrictions also led to a journey around a drive through petting zoo at Monk Park Farm, just another odd lockdown footnote I guess. On the cultural front, two things really struck home this month: The Last of Us Part 2 making its mark on the video games industry by dividing critics and players (the critics are right, it’s an emotionally devastating masterpiece) while a new documentary on the Wu-Tang Clan proved utterly unmissable. If you’ve even a passing interest in the genre then this will raise goose-bumps.
This was it, our Independence day! Or at least a hyperbolic construction likely to prompt people back into social situations on a strangely chosen date. This was the moment the hospitality industry was allowed to reopen subject to a range of restrictions. In all honesty, I wasn’t sure if it was appropriate to pop out for a pint but curiosity got the better of me and I decided Spark would likely be the safest bet for a cold beer and some Philly cheese steak spring rolls from Sloppy’s Burgers. Take out fish and chips from The Star Inn the Harbour was exactly the kind of indulgence I was ready for but the big activity this month was an actual honest-to-god holiday. This was originally intended as a few days away after Easter and rescheduled to a random date which turned out to be permissible to proceed with. The Craven Arms might have been a different experience to usual but still remains one of the country’s finest pubs, The Lister Arms at Malham also earning a spot in our affections when we visited after popping into the incomparable Courtyard Dairy. The journey back took in Yolk Farm, the new place to eat at Minskip Farm Shop to top off a pleasant break. I was also lucky enough to get an invite to The Star Inn the City, whose high standards hadn’t dropped over lockdown. Special mention needs to go to Bluebird Bakery, Haxby Bakehouse and Little Arras for stepping up and the city with sensational bread, semi regular strolls to Bluebird’s shop on Shambles market and to Little Arras on Goodramgate were wonderfully achievable treats.
‘Eat out to help out’: reckless invitation to the virus to spread far and wide or dynamic economic stimulus? History may judge it more harshly than we did in the thick of it when we were desperate for an excuse to socialise. However it’s rendered by history, I had some lovely meals with Robinson’s, Shori and The Blue Barbakan from it. The Blue Barbakan meal in particular was memorable for the staff’s calm response to a power cut. The biggest event of the month was the takeover of Shambles Market by Shambles Kitchen for a live fire cooking event, which was a superb way of showcasing the true potential of the space. The Pheasant at Harome has been on my list for quite a few years now so obviously I wasn’t going to miss the chance to check its quality matched the reputation (it does) when the opportunity presented itself. One of the month’s big landmarks was Baby Fork’s transition to a bed, mercifully sparing our backs from the strain of lifting a growing child in and out of a cot. On the motoring side of things, it was quite inspiring to see Melbourne Raceway rise from the ashes of York Raceway to bring Drag Racing back to the north, crowdfunding enough to pull that off is genuinely inspiring in the circumstances.
September started with a few days staying in Swainby, a beautiful village that was home to my grandparents and where my mother grew up. If you’re ever nearby then check out Whorlton Castle, a beautiful ruin with precious few restrictions on access where I spent a good deal of time playing as a child. From this base we revisited Monk Park, this time as a conventional rather than drive through petting zoo. We also popped across from here to check out how Adam Jackson was settling into The Feversham Arms, the answer bring “predictably well”. Forest is the new restaurant at Galtres Lodge. A little tired looking in its previous incarnation, a thorough refurbishment has made this a real asset to York. Mundane events became rather extraordinary things this year, making a train ride to Peterborough rather more of an event than usual when I nipped down to provide a bit of relief for a friend suffering more than most of us at the moment. Another thing I didn’t expect to be doing this year was helping run and organise a food festival but with support from City of York Council. “A Taste of York” went ahead as a three day event and received with great positivity by everyone to whom I spoke. To recover from all that excitement, I finished off the month with Ambiente’s new brunch menu, which, while superb, has been discontinued for the moment. Fingers crossed we see it back in the new year. This was also a month enhanced by a trip to Skosh, still one of the biggest draws in town with very good reason.
This was altogether a quieter month, though York BID ran another Restaurant Week with great success which took me to Tomahawk Steakhouse for the first time. I also visited Zaap Thai and The Whippet who all came up with top quality menus for very little money. I popped out to Estabulo at Vangarde shopping centre to see what its rodizio style dining added to the offering there. Supersonic Cafe is sister to Supersonic gym but I overcame my natural aversion to those sorts of environments to find some original and delicious brunch dishes. Away from the centre of the city, I was invited along to The Deramore Arms where I found good honest pub dishes with a neat pinch of refinement. A trip to The Ivy always comes with a sense of occasion, which is still intact post-Covid though a trip to The Star at Harome would always be hard to top as the highlight of a month. This really is one of the finest in the region and a meal here is always special.
What kind of prat replaces their car days before being locked down again? This kind! In my defence that replacement swerved a potentially costly MOT at the last minute and I’m now officially a middle aged Volvo driver, how very sensible. Lockdown MK2 was the story of the moment though, even if it felt rather less stringent and jarring than first time around thanks to less limited direction on personal movement. Thankfully I managed to snag a PS5 to soften the shock of restaurants closing again and on another tech note I had the creaking hard drive in my iMac replaced with an SSD by the good folks at Jennings Computer Services, something I can’t recommend enough as it’s utterly transformed this five year old unit.This was a month with relatively thin pickings for food, though a virtual pizza cooking class from The Grand pricked the monotony nicely and Ambiente delivered both literally and in terms of flavour. Hog and Apple dropped off another beauty of a Sunday roast and trips to town generally included treats from Krep, whose savoury pancakes are some of the best streetfood in the city without question. Seeing Jono from Vice & Virtue serve Grace Dent a bone marrow creme brûlée also raised a smile. In a further emotional rollercoaster, my dentist was able to reopen and look at the abscess I’d been managing since March, getting quickly tooled up for a succession of root canal sessions that would ultimately prove fruitless and put an extraction at the top of January’s to do list. A more positive end to the month came from Homage 2 Fromage who teamed up with the National Space centre to put up a chap-hop and cheese night. You may be unfamiliar with this admittedly niche genre but the combination of Professor Elemental and cheese was a strong and enjoyable one.
The final weeks of the year started with a visit to Yolk Farm to collect a Christmas Tree, neatly coincided with the reopening of hospitality for another superb brunch. The York Christmas Market is usually a fraught affair which obviously didn’t go ahead this year, but there was a minor approximation of it on Parliament St which featured Shambles Kitchen knocking out as good an approximation of currywurst as I’ve ever found in York. These guys could also be found catering at Thor’s Tipi, one of the few covered outdoor spaces with the potential to legally mix households in the city. Fish and Forest have served me some absolutely top notch food in the last 18 months or so and their at home offering didn’t disappoint, with salmon pastrami particularly hitting the spot. Even if afternoon tea isn’t one of my favourite dining experience I wasn’t going to forego a chance to try a savoury version at The Feversham Arms, something that didn’t disappoint. With not much time before Christmas left, a nice surprise came courtesy of Zaap Thai who sent me one of their meal kits to test drive. In truth this was closer to a stock cupboard provision of Thai ingredients for making a superb Massaman. I see much turkey Massaman in my near future… Special mention also goes to The Whole Hogg Farm Shop near Malton for their barn full of socially distanced sheds complete with heating that allowed Baby Fork to continue family contact.
I’m really not sure how best to characterise this year. On the one hand, it’s been unspeakably awful watching two funerals on computer screens while coping with the shift to working from home (and loss of income), a lack of childcare and family support and the mounting frustrated anger at a government apparently committed to u-turns as a policy and pursuant of self interest to the detriment of its response to this catastrophe. That being the case, I’m able to process that all from a position of relative privilege with my own outdoor space, access to the centre of a beautiful city and a reasonable level of financial security from which to view an industry I love reinvent itself overnight into something that will hopefully give it a good chance of survival now. It’s going to take years for our country to process the damage inflicted on it this year, and hopefully learn from its brutal exposure of everything wrong with our unequal society but hopefully we can accept this shock as the catalyst to do so.
2021 has the potential to be a positive year for York. As I write this over Christmas, it’s inevitable that the first couple of months will be a continuing horror for the whole of the UK but whether by fluke or design there’re signs that the flotilla of mediocrity we have to lead us are finally heading in the right direction. Once we’ve started to return to relative normality, or work toward a better version of what that was, then York is bound to be at the forefront of the staycation market that will prop up those in the hospitality industry still standing by that point. Speaking selfishly, I have enough to be excited about both personally and professionally as we start to pull away from this that I can start to lay aside the wounds of 2020 and do what I can to help deal with the collateral damage to family, friends and the local communities. This year has shown us that there’s greater resolve in many of us than we realise, to stand firm and reinvent where necessary while keeping focus on a better and more sustainable future. I look forward to brighter times soon and watching that come to fruition.