Nici Wickes' Love Letter to Dining

It’s been a delicious honour to enjoy and write about the city’s myriad eatery options, says Nici Wickes

Nici Wickes. Picture / Babiche Martens.

As I sit down, for the last time in this privileged role as Viva’s eating out editor, I can still remember with absolute clarity the first time, almost six years ago, translating my dining experience (at Andiamo) into words that I hoped would inform, inspire, bring to life and give a weekly voice to what “going out for dinner” is all about.

Now, more than 300 restaurants later, I still get a thrill from reliving the evening in the writing of this column. When I head out looking for magic and the first piece happens, I feel a shimmer of joy wash over me. It could be anything from the deft greeting as soon as you step through the doors, to noticing that a fresh posy has been placed on each table, to the first reading of a menu that is littered with originality yet makes perfect sense.

Or it could be the moment when the first plate of food is placed in front of me. Flavours might float and waft mysteriously on my palate or they might smash and crash through my consciousness — either way can be grand as long as there’s a balance and harmony of sorts.

Regardless of reviewing at least one restaurant every week, I’ve always tried to maintain two things: not to take the act of dining for granted and never to set out seeking to be dissatisfied as fuel for my writing. Quite the opposite, in fact. On a “review day” I’m excited, eager to be pleased and I swear my taste buds are on edge with anticipation.

I have hope in my heart that the experience will take hold of me and won’t let go for all the right reasons; the food will be sublime; the service will teeter delicately between being professional and efficient while having an air of well-guided familiarity and casualness; the atmosphere will be such that it transports me and brings me home to myself. The whole evening will satisfy a hunger I didn’t know I had, quench a thirst that needed appeasing.

I’ve not met a chef or restaurateur who is not 100 per cent proud and confident of their work. To those of you for whom I tried to find the good but fell short, well, it must have been an “off day” for one or the other of us. To those of you for whom I found it so easy to fall in love with your offering, whether in the finest of dining situations or in a cheap eatery knocking out sensational food, thank you for making it possible to wax lyrical about your triumphs. I’m ever-grateful that you so generously welcomed me into your restaurants as you would any diner regardless that my role may have made it more complex than that.

For me, one of the most important aspects to being a food critic is to eat with feeling. Without that we’re merely reporting on an event. Sure, the food should capture our attention but these days, with our photograph-taking and exhaustive attention-seeking behaviour through relentless posting on the various inane platforms, dining, true dining, is being threatened.

The kitchen wants us to see and taste what is obvious first, but then it’s important to be able to sense the invisible, detect the flavours that lie hauntingly in the background of every mouthful, for these are the nuances the chef has worked hardest to create. You’re meant to have your own experience, create your own story about a dish, make your own meaning of it before you start shouting about it.

But just as eating without paying attention seems wasteful and ignorant, I find eating with too much attention boorish and indulgent. It ought to be the dining experience that remains at the centre, with the restaurant providing a glorious, purpose-built backdrop to our relationship across the table from one another.

Which brings me to another critical element of eating out — you must love the company of others. I’m often asked if, when reviewing, I eat alone. No. Although I enjoy dining alone at home or when travelling, when I am reviewing a restaurant I take great care in selecting a dining companion, or sometimes a few, to join me. I want them to be a good fit for the situation.

A steakhouse rules out my vegetarian sister, a gorgeous dining room serving a fabulous bistro-style menu implores me to ask my parents to join me. They are the avid diners who sparked my interest in the restaurant scene by generously taking their children out to our city’s restaurants from a young age instead of investing in new cars and the like. What gloriously delicious financial decisions those were.

If it’s the latest eatery to open in a fashionable part of town I’d take someone who knows their fad from their trad. And for those times when life is threatening to unravel I’d seek out a close friend. Over dinner, gradually, the soul is soothed and the light begins to shine through the cracks. The former food critic for the New York Times, Ruth Reichl, once told me: “People often think that to be a good food critic you must be able to eat well, but it’s more than that. You must enjoy and be able to spend time at the table and to like people because you spend many hours sitting with others.”

To all those who have joined me in dining out over the past six years, thank you for being such wonderful company, so generous of spirit and so forthcoming with your appetites for food and life. You made dining out the pleasure it is intended to be.

Thanks too, to the dedicated followers of this column and, more importantly, thank you for acting so enthusiastically on my words by making your way to the eateries I have written about, as that’s what enables our city’s dining scene to continue to flourish and grow.

I have one last remaining piece of advice to diners and it’s a rule I live by: leave your defensiveness behind when you go out to dinner. Relax, sit back and sink into the luxury of letting the professionals look after you. You’re a team: the diner and the staff, and both sides are equally responsible for the outcome. You’re not working, they are, so let them do their job of looking after you and you do yours, which is to enjoy the simple pleasure of such a leisurely and privileged activity as eating out. And if you can afford it, leave a little tip for good service.

I will continue to eat out, of course, but now I’m looking forward to not having the “homework” to do afterwards. Instead I can lazily daydream and reminisce about what glorious morsels touched my lips and brought me joy the night before, what company I revelled in and how lucky I am to be able to indulge a lifelong obsession with eating out.

• Nici Wickes will continue to write as a freelancer for Viva so look out for her food stories.

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