Natalie Tan

Simmer Down, Issue #24 03.02.2021

to all the restaurants i’ve loved before

“That song ‘drivers license’ is stuck in my head, but I don’t know the words,” I proclaimed a couple weeks ago. I proceeded to blast the music video on Youtube in the kitchen while searing pork chops, an attempt at scratching the itch in my brain that was incessantly repeating da da da, driver’s license.

I continued loudly through the second verse while waving a pair of tongs, “when I first listened to this, I thought, ‘this girl is so young – she doesn’t know anything yet.’”

I listened to ‘drivers license’ again today and when the bridge hit, harmonies bursting in an emo climax, my eyes suddenly watered. I played it 6 more times. I don’t have a driver's license. I’ve never lived in a suburb. Nobody has ever said forever to me and then left me driving alone past their street. So why was Olivia Rodrigo making me, a person 13 years her senior, cry? First off, I’m miserable, and more importantly, while naïve, Olivia has articulated through lyrics and melody what it feels like to deeply miss someone – or a more abstract collection of somethings – in the simplest, most unabashed way. What I’m missing forms a collection as well, a spiderweb where close to the centre lies the lost possibilities of closer human connection by way of food.

Food is at the centre of my social life, with eating and drinking comprising the fulcrum which the various activities I do with others balances upon. Making or ordering dinner, arranging it nicely, taking a picture, and posting it to Instagram for friends to react to will never replace the shared experience of eating together that so perfectly captures the rare feeling of simultaneous physical and spiritual pleasure derived from completely satisfying a state of heightened positive anticipation. 

The last time I ate out with friends was on March 15, 2020. I took the Piccadilly Line and was the only person in the entire car for a while until a few people peppered in and out. Nobody had immediately covered their faces or abruptly ceased a comment about Chinese people after glancing at me, occurrences that had generally increased in frequency, and I was momentarily relieved. We met at a pub, and I had a proper Sunday roast – lamb with mint sauce, vegetables, and a huge golden Yorkshire pudding. The most memorable part of that lunch was an amalgamation of the meal, the brisk, sunny walk from King’s Cross to the pub, and being sat in what felt like the brightest corner of London surrounded by generations-spanning families and gaggles of laughing friends. I washed my hands shoulder-to-shoulder with a random woman in the bathroom, and we counted to 20 together. At the table we relished in memories, and announced aspirations that wouldn’t come to fruition, and after we left we walked along the rusty red mammoth of the St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel, the location of the Spice Girls’ iconic ‘Wannabe’ music video.

Dining out is always treated as special, no matter where I go. Good food aside, there is anticipation, conversation, shared enjoyment, chilled atmospheres on Saturday lunches or bustling, crowded dim sums and after work dinners, tables occupied by boisterous families and whispering couples. It is the worlds and customs we build around eating in restaurants that I miss with aching depth.


Following a four hour stint in the library researching and writing, your thought process begins to rapidly dwindle and all you can think about is lunch. You step out and walk along the quiet streets of Bloomsbury and cross Tottenham Court Road, weaving through crowds to ICCO Pizza on Goodge Street. You gobble up the bubbling hot pizza, molten on top and charred on the bottom, while elevated on a sky-high stool attached to a shiny metal table outlooking the busy street.

“Are you hungry?” your friend asks over the construction on Finchley Road, the two of you just re-emerging from the Overground station into scorching summertime light. Naturally, the red and white glossy sign of a Chicken Cottage beckons you in. Sitting on vinyl chairs that stick to the backs of your bare thighs, a £4 chicken nuggets, chips, and drink combo on a red tray sits in front of you, about to be enhanced by the communal sweet chili and burger sauce squeeze bottles that get passed around the tables. You finish up and continue on your way to Camden Arts Centre.

Beyond the brightly lit threshold of My Old Place, there is the door to the basement where larger parties are seated; it’s a dimly-lit, beige setting for eye-popping exquisite splendor. Your group is so big you require folding chairs squished into the corner of the room, outlining a table covered in platters of food glistening with special sauce or fried clusters bejeweled with Szechuan peppercorns. The mmmmms that emit from throats resonate from person to person through the light knocking of tightly tucked elbows.

At Jolene, you split small plates of fried eggs with prosciutto in the day and pasta and fish and focaccia and rabbit in the evening. What is celeriac remoulade? Nobody knows so you order it and upon chewing wonder how food can taste this good. The server asks what your plans are for the rest of your evening, and you tell them you’re going to see a movie. You run to the bus in the crisp winter air and get off in front of the cinema. You unexpectedly sob heavily during the second act of Frozen 2, comfort-clutching your belly full of ragu.

On another occasion, you giggle, walk, and talk all the way through Holborn to Chinatown to squeeze into a booth at Candy Cafe, located on the first floor of a random narrow building. K-Pop music videos light up the space in vibrant pinks and blinding whites, providing the accompanying soundtrack to your slurps of bubble tea and warm coconut sago with black sesame tangyuan. You gaze up at the marquees of the Gielgud and the Sondheim on the way to the Underground, dodging the audience members of Les Miserables gliding out of the theatre in a hypnotized daze. You remind yourself that if you lift your eyes a little higher, you may just remember where you are and think: everything is so fucking hard, but for now, I’m going to let myself feel lucky

In reality, the aforementioned places where one could potentially have those moments might not exist at the end of all this. Now we are in our third national lockdown, and time is moving at a pace I’m no longer comfortable with. I grapple with the reality that my time here is running out, and it’s only now that seeds scattered by chance early last year are sprouting, growing steadily but slowly without the added nutrients that I could’ve provided otherwise. I cannot tend to the soil, the leaves, and the roots through a screen as tenderly as I wish to. I want voices to resonate through my ears unfiltered by technology, to make plans and look up directions, to pore over menus and bond through eating new foods or revisiting old favourites, to see the sunset through a window that is not my own.

Are you tired of me repeating the same shit every other week? I am. I’m tired and disappointed. Will my wants be relegated to moments never to be had or re-lived, the last window that presents this city to me being the one on the train to the airport, my vision misty from the fog produced by my mask? The sun, flittering through trees, won’t give warmth to the weight of my failures. I’ll see the ghosts of bygone possibilities in the patterns of the train seats; their vaporous figures releasing in wisps from my clasped hands that are too scared to touch anything, in the passengers alighting who remind me that I have to sit until the terminus.

The bridge of ‘drivers license’ lists the aspects of driving that remind Olivia of her loser ex-boyfriend, and laments the moments they could’ve shared together: sidewalks we crossed / I still hear your voice in the traffic, we’re laughing over all the noise / god, I'm so blue. Maybe we’re not so different after all, in the way we pine with the utmost drama, in how we comb through a complicated existence for momentous feelings attached to the plainest parts that we want to hold to our hearts. So that we can remember them, bathe in them, and hope they return to allow us to one day foster full blooms.