The New Thrill of Old Restaurants

New restaurants are great. Roman’s is probably better. Photo: Scott Heins

It is time to go back to restaurants, in case you haven’t heard. New York’s pandemic restrictions have been lifted, dining rooms can once again be full, bar seating has returned, and masks are quickly becoming optional accessories. The state even set off fireworks the other night to honor essential workers and, I guess, celebrate the end of COVID?

Okay, fine, yes, COVID is still here. The pandemic is not over, yet many people seem to agree it’s over enough. Vaccinated folks have been getting back to real life for a while now and, with Governor Cuomo lifting almost all lingering restrictions this week, the pathway back to normalcy is as clear as it could possibly be. So, let’s eat?

Where should we go? is a question you’ll probably ask your friends very soon, if you haven’t already. It’s a good question! Oh, look, there are — almost unbelievably — a bunch of new restaurants. There are big-money projects that feel like restaurants from another era. There are little cafés that were forced to open in the middle of the pandemic for one reason or another. There are some pop-ups that are maybe worth checking out?

For me, personally, these new restaurants aren’t really what I want right now. It’s not that I’m unexcited by the idea of new restaurants. After 15 months of takeout, sidewalk meals, and way too much home cooking, I’m excited by the idea of pretty much anything that happens outside of my apartment — but on the other hand, everything feels new right now. The most mundane activities imaginable can be exhilarating. Walking down the street without a mask feels new. Checking out a book, in person, at a library feels new. Sitting down to have coffee with somebody who doesn’t also live in my home feels so good that it’s like I’m getting away with something.

And the idea of going inside a restaurant — any restaurant — to sit down and eat an actual meal among other (hopefully vaccinated) diners is incredible. What’s slightly more incredible is that this is a chance to rediscover all the places and experiences I used to take for granted, like they were no big deal, and have sorely missed over the last year-plus.

I’ve missed antipasti and glasses of rosé in King’s perfectly cheerful back dining room. I’ve missed martinis inside Walker’s and burgers inside Melon’s. I’ve missed somewhat sheepishly asking for another plate of bread, and then another, at Roman’s as my table mops up whatever sauce is lingering in an almost-finished bowl of pasta. I’ve missed noodles inside Super Taste and mortadella pizzas inside Ops.

I’ve missed the way one good friend will let the last bite of a shared plate linger and linger until a server finally tries to take it away and he dives to finish it. I’ve bizarrely missed the way another friend is, without fail, exactly 20 minutes late every time we meet up, and then spends another 10 minutes apologizing. I’ve missed the freedom of asking a sommelier to please just let us have whatever wine they’re excited about right now because they’re going to pick something better than we ever could anyway.

New restaurants can be great, but I already know these experiences will be better, and they are what I missed so much when we were all staying inside. It’s rare to have so many little rituals that are both familiar and fresh, so my plan is to embrace that. I know that the novelty will wear off, and that, as hard as it is to believe even now, all of this will start to feel routine again. And when that happens, great! There will be new places to try and new rituals to find. But until then, I’ll be at Roman’s, ordering an Americano and waiting for my friend, who just texted that he’s on his way and will be here any minute, I’m sure.

The New Thrill of Old Restaurants