The sign reads simply: “Food & Wine.” That’s it. No one’s name attached, no indication of what kind of food. The white font is neatly presented in all caps, yet completely unassuming. A slight touch of green neon to punctuate the square shape that surrounds the words makes it stand out in the dark desert of this so-called “late night” hour. Or “late” by London standards. The last time Erica had checked, this was supposed to be an “alpha” city. Alpha ++ no less. Then again, the global cities index also counts New York among its alpha ++ cities, so maybe the index didn’t really know shit. For NYC was nothing more than a cluster fuck of Midwesterners and Southerners playing pretend at being cultural. London was somewhat the same in that it drew all manner of the UK’s country bumpkins to the proverbial yard. But even country bumpkins could appreciate the value of emerging from the theatre and wanting to forage for sustenance after using all that energy on pretending to be erudite.
So, again, Erica had to ask herself as she wandered through the streets of SoHo, then Oxford Circus, then Mayfair: where the fuck had all the late-night food options gone? When she had last been in town, circa 2018, it felt as though everything had been open. Like it was raining tacos, falafels, pizzas, hot dogs, pub fare. In the post-Brexit, post-corona world, maybe something had changed. Maybe it was less enticing for business owners and food purveyors alike to go the extra kilometer for a few measly pounds when it cost far more to operate in the current conditions, ergo not bothering with extended hours. Who could say? All she knew was this: it was Thursday night at eleven in London and not even the Pizza Hut was having it in terms of offering her a much-needed taste.
She hadn’t eaten since the “brunch hour,” foolishly assuming that it would be easy to find something “later,” after she saw a show at the Noël Coward Theatre. But it wasn’t. And even reducing herself to the idea of going to Pizza Hut after coming from America, the epicenter of Pizza Hut, proved useless when, upon descending multiple staircases to get to it, she was promptly turned away, the person behind the counter and their co-worker on the floor quickly shouting, “We’re closed!” despite Erica having only seconds earlier seen two cackling drunk girls stumble out the door with pizza boxes. Evidently, they had made the cut. They were anointed as Worthy of Late-Night Food. Erica, not so much. Maybe she simply wasn’t drunk enough. Or at all.
The slog went on. She picked up her feet, kept moving. As though by an invisible hand that was pushing her along to do so. For she certainly had no remaining energy of her own to continue on this fool’s errand, this fruitless (literally) journey. Until, what felt like almost an hour later—after passing the umpteenth candy store (who the fuck wanted candy? The British and their goddamn self-infantilization)—she saw it. An oasis in the desert: Food & Wine. Seducing her like the swinging pendulum of a hypnotist, she gravitated toward it against her own will. As though she even had a choice to turn her nose up at it in the first place. This was it. This was all there was. Or would ever be, on the “late-night” scene (again, it was, at this point, still not even midnight).
There were no doors to obstruct one’s inevitable entrance—just an open space inviting the ravenous customer in without the bother of pushing or pulling. She seemed to find herself inside the convenience store as if by magic. To her delight and surprise, she could immediately see that it had all manner of cuisine options. More, really, than any convenience store should. There were sandwiches, wraps, Indian fare (because London), meats, cheeses, chips, biscotti—a veritable gamut of choices compared to what she had seen out there “on the streets.” She ended up choosing a box of frozen chicken tikka masala, and when she asked the man behind the counter if he could heat it up for her, along with a samosa on display behind the glass, he glared at Erica and replied, “I can heat up only samosa for you, that’s it.” She didn’t quite understand the logic behind the man’s selectivism, but, as it is said, a beggar can’t be a chooser, so she put the chicken tikka back, grabbed one of the sandwiches (as well as some chips and a banana) instead and took the “samosa deal.” Back out on the sidewalk, she could see that it had only grown more desolate. Few signs of life other than the cars and buses whizzing past Marble Arch. Evidently, the pedestrians she might have seen in some previous version of London had found other, hidden realms that were not this one. But she hoped wherever they were, they had at least found a fucking falafel to get them through the rest of the night without the indefatigable pangs of hunger.
Erica made it back to her hotel somewhere around one a.m., consuming what she had bought from Food & Wine on the rest of her walk like a feral animal, or a raccoon who had scored big with a trash can. She could barely remember falling asleep, but, next thing she knew, she was awakening at around ten a.m. with her cheek stuck to the banana peel (buying a piece of fruit for good measure was part of her bid to be healthful while traveling). The checkout time was in one hour, and she was nowhere near prepared. What’s more, she was, yet again, starving. As though Food & Wine had never happened at all. Was nothing more than a fever dream… But then she belched and could taste the residual lingerings of the sandwich intermixed with the samosa, and knew it had all been only too real.
Barely making the cutoff for checkout, Erica took to the streets again with her suitcase, calling a Bolt to pick her up on the corner. When the driver miraculously opted for a route that had them passing by “Food & Wine” in the daylight, it didn’t appear nearly as magical. In fact, it looked downright foul. The sort of place one would only go if she were positively desperate. Which, obviously, she was. But she didn’t understand just how desperate until getting this final glimpse of the shop again before leaving town. And, upon closer inspection, she realized the letters were written in green not white. Perhaps just another way in which she had romanticized the place in her hour of need.