“These are the most interesting times of our lives, Platty,” one of my old colleagues said as we gathered for a welcome-back drink not long ago on what seemed to be an almost alarmingly overcrowded corner of the West Village. He was dressed for cocktail hour in a flapping blue and white mask, which he lifted occasionally so he could pop an olive into his mouth or take a sip of his drink. Café tables were set in long rows along the sidewalk and filled with pairs of diners on either side of the street. Music played in the park across the avenue, and couples strolled to and fro under strings of lights hung up in the trees. Across the way, one of the city’s more prominent chefs was busing her own tables, which is something, we agreed, you wouldn’t have seen just a few short months ago.
Like many friends in the restaurant community, your humble critic has spent these past months largely in hibernation, much of it lolling on the family couch, flipping wistfully through cookbooks from far-off places like Venice, Sichuan, and Mexico while missing the familiar idiosyncrasies and rituals of the restaurant experience — the ones that tend to accrue over the years for those of us who’ve eaten out around town for too long.
I’ve missed tucking a napkin under my collar before dinner arrives and asking for the wine list and muttering under my breath about the ridiculous prices. I’ve missed the little glasses of freshly squeezed orange juice that I used to enjoy before my diner breakfast arrived at the counter, and roast chickens served with professionally plated stuffing, and crackly slivers of Peking duck carved tableside by unmasked servers wearing stiff white gloves. I’ve missed messy cheeseburgers and crisp scallion pancakes dappled with little pools of oil, and I’ve missed slurping bowls of ramen at a crowded bar instead of carryout style from a plastic container over the sink at home.
Mostly I’ve missed the humming sense of community that restaurants and the thousands of people who work in them spin, hour by hour and day by day, like a web around this great dining city. I’ve missed how you don’t appreciate it, or even know it’s there, until suddenly it’s gone.
This sense of community wasn’t easy to find when we were subsisting on bean recipes in our dark little submarine of an apartment during the depths of the COVID quarantine this spring, or when the streets were empty and the stores were boarded up and the only people out, on curfew evenings, were cars filled with undercover cops who looked suspiciously unlike cops and more like people looking for trouble.
The Greenmarket was open in Union Square, and, before curfew, you could get a proper bacon-and-cheese sandwich from the local Korean deli or freshly baked bagels from Bagel Bob’s on University Place. You could also get a Neapolitan-style pizza pie from Ribalta on 12th Street and a thick cut of New York strip with all the trimmings if you had cash in your pocket and ordered early enough from the Strip House one block over.
Not that we ordered very much carryout in our little apartment after a while. As things dragged on through the late spring and early summer and the state of the world seemed to spiral more and more out of control, I think we lost our appetite for food in the city, which, in a place like New York, is a bit like losing your appetite for life. Suspended among the mostly empty buildings in our home — venturing out now and then in our jury-rigged masks for rolls of toilet paper or to join briefly in the summer marches that were moving all around the city — we were always happy to know that a few kitchens were trying to stay in business and that, when all of this madness ended, the promise of that most necessary of New York traditions, a half-decent restaurant dinner, would still be there.
On the first day that outdoor dining was allowed around town, I took the family out to celebrate with some of that pizza at Ribalta. There’s a police building on that portion of 12th Street, so the block was still barricaded off, but a few tables had been set out randomly on the sidewalk, and when the pizza arrived, accompanied by salads and a pair of Negronis, you could feel the old appetite returning slowly to the neighborhood.
After a week or two, the outdoor crowds began to make us nervous, so we never went back. But all around you can see signs now of the old appetite for that special alchemy of community and identity, which restaurants provide, slowly coming back to life.
This slow sense of renewal has coincided with another great awakening in other corners of the food universe, of course. Lavish tipping is suddenly back in fashion, and, for the time being, at least, the old passive role of the restaurant critic has been turned on its head. Not so long ago, a critic could get a story by sitting down at a new restaurant and asking for a menu. But the story is much bigger now than the quality, say, of your slightly fallen cheese soufflé — it’s about worker safety and diner safety and the very survival of a culture that has defined this city for as long as any of us can remember.
There will be other changes in the dining world, of course, and as summer turns to fall and the cold weather arrives, things will probably get worse before they get better. There will be more grim, high-profile closings, and smaller, more nimble restaurants may have a better chance at pulling through than larger, more ponderous operations. The restaurant ecosystem in New York is like a huge teeming reef that has been struck out of nowhere by a poisonous tide. This calamity will change life on the reef forever, especially for the thousands of cooks and servers (and overfed critics) who’ve been making our livelihoods there for as long as we can remember. But the tide will eventually drift away and life will return to the reef — possibly in new, more diverse and vibrant ways than before.
It may be a while before we enjoy all the things we’ve missed about our vanished restaurant world. But the urge for a good meal is strong in this great old dining city. Sitting out on the slightly overcrowded sidewalk that summer evening, sharing a masked drink with my colleague, I could feel energy in the air and vitality. Fortified by the dregs of that first martini, it felt good to be back in the game.