field notes

What Is a Restaurant Critic’s Job in a Time of Social Distancing?

“Did you just cough?” Photo: Heritage Art/Heritage Images via Getty Images

We’d all washed our hands perhaps too many times, my guests and I, before sitting down to dinner the other night at one of the handful of breathlessly trendy new restaurants which, in the best of times, open all over this great dining city on any given evening. I’d visited the downtown dining room before on my regular gastronomic rounds, and had expected it to be much emptier this time. But even at the early critic’s hour of 6:30 p.m., the room was boisterous and surprisingly full, although if my little table was any indication, there were currents of anxiety and baleful black humor playing just below the surface of things.

“Can we request four tables so we can all eat alone but together?” one of my jaded young friends had written on the predinner email chain.

“This might be my last supper before the black bean diet begins,” someone else said.

“I think I’m going to wash my hands again,” said another guest as dinner began to arrive, delivered by a slightly nervous waitstaff who, whether because a glowering critic was in their midst, or because of the coronavirus panic sweeping the land, were grinning fixed, manic grins.

These are delicate times for those of us in the restaurant and food-writing trade, especially those of us who are a certain age, and who have subsisted on the unhealthiest of diets for far too long. The restaurant business hangs on a slim economic thread in the best of times, and in times of crisis, like we’re in now, the instinct of my little fraternity of scribblers and gasbags has always been to rally the faithful, and to send diners out into the bars and and dining rooms to support our favorite industry.

But unlike the chaos after 9/11, which found your dutiful critic gamely out and about town urging people to gorge themselves on platters of steak-frites in momentarily empty cafés, or after the crash of 2008, where I did the same, this crisis has a different, more sinister tone to it. My colleague, Justin Davidson, called for the closing of concert and theater venues around town, and announced that he would be staying home for a while. “Social distancing” is the mantra of the hour among the sage, levelheaded health professionals I know; some of the largest, most-profitable establishments in town are being forced to reduce their capacity by government order; and even the most avid food-industry gasbags and boosters have to admit that it’s hard to avoid touching unfamiliar surfaces in crowded bars or dining rooms — not to mention the different, suddenly menacing sectors of your own face.

Not that I’m calling for the shuttering of all the restaurants and bars around this great eating and drinking town. Broadway shows and concerts attract much larger crowds than restaurants do, and the clientele tends to skew towards the older, more vulnerable members of the population. But like restaurateurs, we critics are in the service business, and our duty is to the reading public first, not the restaurants. In these rapidly changing times, it’s difficult to know whether a rave review, aside from being ridiculously beside the point, will end up doing more harm than good.

All of these grim thoughts played in my head as our dinner began to arrive — skewered chunks of fresh seafood dripped in butter, wedges of eggs and onions mingled with fresh uni, platters of steak pooled with gravy and piled with thin strips of French-fried potatoes that, on this particular evening, at this particular time, might have been one of the most delicious, most comforting things I’ve ever tasted.

And as we ate our meal, and I tapped out a note or two into my no-doubt-germ-infected phone, a sense of comfort and intimacy spread out around our table, as I’m sure it did throughout the crowded, noisy dining room, and other crowded, noisy dining rooms all around town. Enjoying a good meal in a good restaurant did what good meals always do, especially in great dining cities like this one, or Tokyo, or Beijing, or Bologna. It got us out of our own heads for a little while, and created a sense of community and camaraderie before we headed back to our little apartments and our phones, which even as we ate were buzzing with dire notifications.

I remember after Hurricane Sandy, when the lights were out all over downtown, I dropped into the old red-sauce institution, Gene’s, on West 11th street. The only other customer at the little wooden bar up front was an old white-shoe lawyer who lived down the street, and as we sipped our drinks he began reciting Shakespeare sonnets from memory in the dim bar light. “Gene’s will never close,” the old regular said with a slightly cockeyed smile when I asked if this was the venerable institution’s last call. “This city always comes back.”

No doubt that’s true, although for larger places, or places that have already been struggling, I have a feeling the come back may take a little longer this time. But as the dishes kept clattering down on our table in the bustling room, and we called for more drinks and glasses of wine, it was a relief to be communing with the life of the city again, at least for an hour or so. It was a relief to be fixed so firmly and pleasantly in the happy present, instead of the increasingly fretful, complicated future, and to do what we restaurant lovers love to do in restaurants — chatter about what we’ve been cooking, and the quality of the excellent filet, and to argue about what we’ll order for dessert.

What Is a Restaurant Critic’s Job During Social Distancing?