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Great Escape

I Fantasize About Online Menus

I live out all the lives I’ll never live through the meals I’ll probably never eat

Credit: Aurelie and Morgan David de Lossy/Cultura via Getty

ItIt has been 10 minutes, and still, I can’t decide between the chicken or the shrimp laksa. I’m craving seafood, but suspect the shrimp come with their head and shells on, and I’m not sure I can deal with the added labor. There are extras to consider, too — toppings of charred aubergine, crispy fried tofu or half a soft boiled egg. I want all three, but not at once. And do I have the rice noodles or the egg, and is it weird to ask for both?

At this point, the waiter should be circling impatiently, eager to get orders through and keep turning the tables (there’s a no-reservations policy, of course). But I’m not in a critically acclaimed Malaysian restaurant in North London. It’s 11 a.m. and I’m at my desk in the box room of a house in a quiet suburb, staring out the window at the rain lashing against the leaves. I’m tired and bored of my work. So for a brief moment, I think about slurping a rich, umami broth, and feeling the delicious heat of the chili hit the back of my throat.

Poring over restaurant menus has become one of my most rewarding pleasures. My first vivid memory of holding a menu was at a 12th birthday celebration at a local chain restaurant. Eating out wasn’t routine in our family. It was saved for special occasions and never anywhere overly grand. Holding that tripled-folded laminated card and choosing my own personalized dinner felt like a thrill. I got to do it all over again for dessert when I always ordered Death by Chocolate because it felt like it was challenging me. I’d push the sundae glass away after several spoonfuls, defeated but still alive.

As I became an adult and moved from small towns to big cities, eating out become less of a novelty, but the excitement of opening a menu for the first time never went away (even if the desserts got more refined).

I know I’m not alone in my menu habit. Many people take great pleasure reading the specials on a sheet of brown kraft paper, and others look up the place they’re going that night and spend a few glorious minutes wallowing in the culinary possibilities that lie ahead. I do both these things, but I also regularly spend chunks of time reading the menus of restaurants I’ve never been to and probably never will.

OnOn a cold London winter’s day, I take myself to Los Angeles, to a taco truck in Los Feliz, feeling the sun on arms as I shovel tortillas laden with Baja fish and pico de gallo into my mouth. Another day I’m at a trattoria in Sicily, sat on a wooden chair, my elbows resting on a checked tablecloth as I work my way through plates of creamy burrata, followed by spaghetti with anchovies and almonds.

Menus are windows into another world. When you’re immersed in one, the clock stops and the possibilities feel infinite. And it’s not just about where I want to be, but who I want to be. For a few moments I can be the person who has the time — and money — to spend August in the Mediterranean, enjoying long lunches and carafes of local wine. Sometimes, I’m the woman who can score a reservation at the new celebrity favourite, by-passing the three-month wait list.

Most of all, instead of being someone who lives in a constant fear of making the wrong choice — from choosing a dentist to deciding what city to live in — I become the person who actually makes decisions and feels good about it. Choosing dinner in a restaurant is a delight, yet is also tempered with a slight feeling of panic; the stakes feel high, and the possibility of ordering the wrong thing all too real. So when there’s no waiter coming to take your order, the pleasure of menu reading rockets.

Sometimes I end up somewhere I wasn’t expecting. British food writer Diana Henry (whose latest book How To Eat A Peach also demonstrates a preoccupation with fantasy menus) recently posted photos of several Scottish restaurants she had visited on her Instagram, which led me down a rabbit hole where I spent a joyous half hour at Inver restaurant, on the Scottish shores of Loch Fyne, devouring descriptions of langoustines with rapeseed mayo and whole crab with brown butter.

I err away from the most and least expensive things on the menu (as research shows most diners do), but also notice certain words repeat themselves — n’duja, salted caramel, zatar — while other combinations are entirely new to me and as thrilling to read as any line in a novel. Crumpet lobster toast. Rye donuts and wild pepper ice cream, bone marrow, caramel, and cardamom. It is language that can hypnotise: Encrusted. Bubbling. Caramelized.

Often, the more serious a place takes their food, the cleaner the description. Pork chop. Whole turbot. An exception is Massimo Bottura’s Osteria Francescana, this year voted the world’s best restaurant, where the 10-course tasting menu reads like a poem, each dish on a new line: An eel swimming up the Po River. Tribute to Normandy.

I don’t need a three Michelin-star tasting menu to get lost in, though. Some of the greatest pleasure comes in methodically going through the long list of options on a Chinese delivery menu that drops onto the doormat.

On days when life feels overwhelming, this is my mindfulness, focusing with the intent on choosing the perfect order from the scores of main and side dishes. It feels like an achievement of sorts, something within my control.

Perhaps one day, in my real life, I might find myself sat on the shore at Loch Fyne in Scotland, picking through a plate of langoustines with a rapeseed mayo, and tasting wild pepper ice cream for real. I know it will taste good. But I’m not sure it could ever taste as good as it does in my imagination.

Writer and editor. Find me in Cosmopolitan, The Times, BBC Culture and others. clarethorp.com

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