There are only three magic words you need to hear to know you've made it in life – and they aren't the ones you're thinking of. They are: "The usual, madam?"
Obviously, feel free to change the pronoun to whatever suits; my point is that there is nothing quite like being welcomed thus by a familiar waiter to make one feel like royalty – even, I suspect, if one already is.
Had Prince Andrew been able to dial the waiter who always serves him at Pizza Express, and ask them to tell Emily Maitlis his usual pizza order, he might not be in the pickle in which he currently finds himself.
Yet such places do not often come in the form of Pizza Express in Woking. Indeed, they rarely come in the form of chains, Woking or otherwise. When restaurants finally reopened after the first nationwide lockdown on that fateful Saturday in July, the first place I headed was not Zizzi or Nando's, but nor was it Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester or La Dame de Pic.
It wasn't specifically good food that I missed (Deliveroo had delivered that, when my efforts failed) and nor was it the ceremony of fine dining, all hush and white tablecloths. No, as lockdown eased and we seemed set for calmer waters, the beacon of light I aimed for was Zia Lucia on Holloway Road, its pizza Napoli with extra olives, and its manager Claudio Vescovo.
"I wanted to be back there, feel the warmth, have great food – but I also wanted to support him, as a friend and restaurateur," says journalist Ben Lazarus. Ben is not describing Zia Lucia and Claudio, but his own neighbourhood Italian, Il Portico, and its owner James Chiavarini.
Our sentiments are identical, however. We love seeing the same faces, and ordering the same thing each time. "I even sit at the same table – and feel aggrieved if someone else is there," he laughs. "When lockdown lifted it was the first place I went. I wanted to support James, and to be back there." Across the city, food lovers followed suit.
Of course, some people did head into town – but far more kept to their local area. Where most central London restaurants experienced a 70% drop in footfall (except during August, when Eat Out to Help Out boosted numbers), restaurants in residential areas had never been busier than in the months between August and November.
When I speak to Tom Oldroyd, founder and proprietor of the now sadly closed Oldroyd on Upper Street and the Duke of Richmond in Dalston, he is exhausted. It's three days prior to Lockdown 2.0 and he is fully booked for every hour of them. "People are really going for it," he says, slightly dazed, "and they're going all-out on the ordering."
The latter is probably more of a reflection on how we feel about entering a second lockdown than it is local restaurants per se – most of London's bars, pubs and restaurants are heaving by this point – but Oldroyd has definitely noticed a renewed appreciation for neighbourhood restaurants since the pandemic descended, and not just because people are more wary of public transport. "I think people were already becoming aware of the fact that local independent places are fragile," he says, "but lockdown made it more obvious: if you don't use them you lose them."
Lockdown made it more obvious: if you don't use them you lose them
One of the few blessings of lockdown – the first one, at least – was that it focused a sense of responsibility toward one's local area, and the small, often family-run businesses that depend on our custom. With nothing to do but cook and eat, and with supermarket shopping rendered even more joyless by social distancing measures, independent shops flourished.
Restaurants, in turn, pivoted into delis and wine shops, supplied NHS workers and food banks and set up new takeaway and delivery arms. Brawn, a restaurant on Columbia Road that cookery writer Diana Henry described to me as "my restaurant home" was already running food bank deliveries each week when the pandemic hit. It's a service they continued throughout lockdown as well as setting up Brawnstore, which has acted as a platform for farmers, florists and others.
"I think we became more aware of local places during lockdown, and wanted to support them more," says Tony Rodd, who owns Copper & Ink in Blackheath with his wife Becky, "and realised restaurants like ours do, where possible, source their ingredients from local butchers, cheesemongers and bakeries."
As time, coronavirus and governmental incompetence wore on, the role that neighbourhood restaurants play in the community became increasingly apparent. It was particularly clear during the furore over free school meals, when they stepped in to fill the gaping hole the government left in the stomachs of the country's poorest children.
It's the other reason Oldroyd and his partner are so exhausted – by the end of half term, using their own money and donations from regulars and local residents, they'd given out more than 1,000 meals to children in Hackney who might otherwise have gone hungry during the holidays.
"When you look at Marcus Rashford's campaign around free school meals, the majority of places that stepped up were restaurants that were intertwined with their community," says Chiavarini, owner of Il Portico. "A good local restaurant has this wonderful, symbiotic relationship with customers and surroundings."
It is this approach, coupled with an intuitive understanding of both restaurants and neighbourhoods, that has enabled Chris Corbin and Jeremy King to create some of the most successful local restaurants London has to offer.
Though best known for the beautifully indulgent Wolseley on Piccadilly – very much not a local restaurant, unless Mayfair is your place of residence and oysters your daily bread – it is in their latter creations that the pair really showcase their talent for distilling the spirit of an area and its people.
It is in Colbert on Sloane Square, where residents of all stripes congregate throughout the day for coffee, croque monsieurs and cocktails. It is in Fischer's in Marylebone, where you are as likely to find a couple of mums nursing babies and afternoon tea as you are a wan-looking gentleman convalescing with a chicken soup after an operation on Harley Street.
"When we were invited by Cadogan, the landlord, to establish a restaurant on Sloane Square, they said they wanted something like The Wolseley," King explains. "But when I walked around the area and spoke to the people, I knew The Wolseley wasn't right. I said to Cadogan that I really felt what this place deserved was a restaurant that feels like it has always been there; that has been designed, and built, and conceived for the people of Chelsea."
What he created – first in Colbert, then Fischer's and then Soutine in St John's Wood – was "a restaurant with heart and soul".
As a former resident of Marylebone myself, I would like to say I remember vividly the day that Fischer's opened its doors – but I don't. No sooner had it opened, we forgot that there had ever been a time when we hadn't been able to wander in for a creamy bowl of birchermüsli in the morning, or a sticky slice of sachertorte (chocolate cake) in the afternoon. One essential ingredient of a good neighbourhood joint for me and many people I speak to is something that can fulfil any need or craving, at any time, for any person. "The most interesting people who go into a restaurant are rarely the most affluent," says King. "We give people the opportunity to spend, but it is not mandatory. If they want to come in for coffee and cake that's fine."
Further south, Mel Brown says of her much-loved restaurant The Laundry: "Years of working at The Providores with Peter Gordon taught me so much about casual dining. I wanted somewhere that gave a really firm nod to the Old World brasseries of Europe, and the cafés of New Zealand; to those places where you don't need to book, but can just sit at the bar and order an espresso martini or a croque madame."
Though it's only been open a year, the beautifully restored Edwardian building has, like Fischer's, embedded itself into the community such that, pre-lockdown, regulars struggled to conceive of a time when it hadn't been there. Then came March, and suddenly the extent to which we'd taken places like these for granted was forced into sharp relief.
"Restaurants that were individual and had character were elevated in people's esteem and affection," King recalls. As Copper & Ink's Tony Rodd puts it, "We are not just a place that offers food. We are familiar, smiling faces that support you mentally and emotionally."
Neighbourhood places are full of familiar faces that support you emotionally
One of the reasons restaurants like theirs stood out above chains is that the staff had remained more or less constant, and that only they can truly provide the "Your usual, madam?" service we're all craving.
This was all the more important when restaurants reopened. "We're there almost all the time anyway," says Rodd. "But after lockdown one, I really felt I had to be at the pass, and Becky on the floor every day, just to restore a sense of normality."
Equally important to creating a sense of normality in abnormal times are familiar dishes. Of course, seasonal variation is important – particularly if you care about the freshness and sustainability of your ingredients – but "McDonald's would be fools if they ever took the Big Mac off the menu, just as we would be with our Cantabrian anchovies in oil," says Campbell. "You might not order your favourite dish each time, but seeing it on the menu gives you a sense of security."
By way of explanation, Campbell brings up Bob: one of their favourite regulars, who orders anchovies in oil – "None of that chilli or lemon nonsense on top." – two plates of bread and butter, followed by his main course. "He drives a scrap metal haulage van around London 365 days a year, so you can understand the need to stop for some proper sustenance at lunchtime," Campbell continues, "and he overpays in cash every time, even when we turned cashless through Covid."
The sketch is sparse and affectionate, and seems to encapsulate both King's point about the most interesting customers not necessarily being the most affluent, and Diana Henry's description of a neighbourhood restaurant as one's "restaurant home". "A lot of people ask me where I recommend they go for celebrations," says King – "and I always say, the restaurants that know you best."
One of our regulars orders anchovies "without that chilli nonsense"
As Fischer's' eclectic mix of Harley Street outpatients, exam results-happy students and studious solitary diners shows, such restaurants are capable of sustaining through life's trials and tribulations as well as its triumphs – be they regular, like Bob's, or irregular, like those Il Portico fan Reverend Graham Morgan faced when his partner Ray fell ill: "The kindness that James and his staff showed was above and beyond. Eating was difficult for Ray, so they always made sure to cook what he most liked," he recalls. "They were true neighbours." Since Ray passed away earlier this year, eating at Il Portico has become for Graham "a sort of peace".
Graham's story touches me to my core, and reminds me of that piercingly beautiful MFK Fisher quote from Gastronomical Me, her autobiography: "Our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others," she writes. "There is food in the bowl, and more often than not, because of what honesty I have, there is nourishment in the heart, to feed the wilder, more insistent hungers."
Now more than ever – whether it's a healing bowl of chicken soup with spätzle at Fischer's; a tangle of tagliatelle and pork ragu at Il Portico; or a croque madame at The Laundry, devoured with friends – I can think of no better definition of a good neighbourhood restaurant than this.