Lockdown and the future of dining out

Posted by Alice Hoad - Tuesday, 12 May 2020


Due to Covid-19, all restaurants from low-priced fast food to high-end fine dining establishments, have been forced to close their doors, with business restricted to takeaway service. It seems ironic that our book, The social significance of dining out, has been published at this time. Far from making the book irrelevant, however, there is much from the study that can be used to understand our status quo and, even, make reasonable speculations about the future of dining out.

The book emanates from a systematic comparison of interview and survey data on dining out in England in 1995 and 2015 and examines continuity and change over this 20-year period. In our book we do not focus solely on restaurant meals but also examine eating at home, hosting others, and being hosted as distinct but related modes of provisioning food in order to understand how dining out is integrated into wider eating regimes. Eating at home entails ‘work’: one must shop for food, decide what to eat, prepare a meal, set the table, clear away, and wash up. One reason for visiting a restaurant is to relieve the pressure of burdensome domestic labour. Yet dining out also entails ‘work’ of a kind: forethought may be required to book a table, perhaps a change of clothes, travel to the restaurant, and the performance entailed in being both a good customer and good company for fellow diners! Enter, the takeaway. Takeaway meals are used as a means of reducing the amount of time and effort in the kitchen at home while avoiding the formality (and expense) of dining out in a restaurant. They are considered a treat. But, in general, takeaways have been considered largely inferior to restaurant meals. A respondent to our study, on being asked where he eats out, replies ‘lots of places, the top of the range down to a takeaway’.

Takeaways have not been the most stylish or legitimate way to access commercial provision of cooked food. The status of the takeaway and its role within our wider eating regimes has rapidly transformed in recent weeks under lockdown. With an influx of restaurants to the takeaway market, in a bid to maintain trading in some capacity, options for takeaway food have diversified. Diversification is not limited to cuisine styles but also types of establishment (and price-points!). Establishments from independent cafes to fine-dining restaurants now provide takeaways. Michelin star restaurants are turning out Michelin star takeaway. You might say that takeaway food has never been so stylish!

Whether this is a temporary elevation of the status of takeaways or an enduring feature is yet to be seen. However, this innovation forced by the current conditions is certainly consistent with the central findings of our research, a tension between familiarity and increased variety. On the one hand we note a tendency toward familiarisation and casualisation in the consumption of restaurant meals over the last 20 years; what was once considered ‘special’ has become increasingly ‘ordinary’. People have grown used to dining out and feel more comfortable than before. Foods that were previously the exclusive remit of the restaurant have entered the domestic realm. A second, counter-tendency we observed was increasing diversification of the restaurant meal; that is, a broadening variety of cuisines, dishes and experiences. The same process is apparent in takeaway meals. These unusual times reflect trends with a much longer history.

In the face of such unexpected disruption brought on by the pandemic, it is perhaps comforting therefore to emphasise continuity and trends in the well-established practice of eating. Our study revealed no radical ruptures or dramatic changes within the 20-year period of 1995-2015; this itself is a finding as it runs counter to a strong popular perception that eating out is subject to perpetual rapid mutation. We are inclined to believe that the disruption to ‘normal’ that we are presently experiencing has not made our daily lives unrecognisable and, in the longer term, will not signify a dramatic transformation.

Be that as it may, the next 12 to 18 months will undoubtedly be a challenging time for the restaurant industry. There will be a significant hiatus in demand as people’s time use in daily life is altered, they remain reluctant to travel, anxious about public space, and short of money. Meanwhile, restaurateurs’ adaptations will generate a trickle of income. The eventual easing of restrictions will bring an increase in revenue but adhering to the 2-metre rule will be very difficult for many businesses. This income will be enough for some to pay their overheads and weather the storm; many others will go bankrupt. We would expect demand to return within a couple of years because, as our study suggests, people really do like eating out and appreciate its rituals.

That is not to say that – in the longer term – all will simply return to ’normal’, as it was before. A small proportion of businesses will likely continue with an adapted business model, capitalising on a mode of operation that they may not previously have considered viable. A small proportion of the population will continue in their new eating routines despite many other aspects of their daily life returning to ‘normal’. While not radical, these small changes, when scaled across a population and a market sector, may equate to noteworthy, meaningful change in the way we eat.

By Jennifer Whillans, Alan Warde and Jessica Paddock

Jennifer Whillans is Research Fellow at the University of Bristol

Alan Warde is Professor of Sociology at the University of Manchester

Jessica Paddock is Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Bristol



The social significance of dining out: A study of continuity and change, by Alan Warde, Jessica Paddock and Jennifer Whillans, is available to buy now.



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