This article originally appeared in The Year I Ate New York, a newsletter about eating through the city, one restaurant at a time. Sign up here.
A few nights ago, I was sitting at the bar of the airy Williamsburg restaurant Misi, half-heartedly talking with the stranger next to me who was also dining alone. Inevitably, he asked what I did, and I said I write about restaurants. I didn’t think much about it when I went to use the restroom, but he evidently decided to read up on me, because when I got back to my seat, I saw my job announcement on his phone. Yes, I was New York Magazine’s new diner-at-large, and indeed I would be responsible for writing the weekly column that you are now reading. The decision to accept the job was an easy one to make at the time; the city was increasingly carefree and optimistic, and we couldn’t wait to get back to restaurants.
Then the Omicron variant swept through, everyone got sick, and I didn’t leave my neighborhood between Christmas until well past New Year’s. Was a full year of going out every day and every night really such a good idea after all? I wondered. Were other New Yorkers going out at all?
I wasn’t going to find the answers sitting at home. Not to sound cavalier, but as a vaccinated person without children or immunocompromised dependents, I’m comfortable with the risks of indoor dining, and I knew that, if I was going to get any real sense of how the city feels about restaurants right now, I would need to go big during my first week on the job. So I did what any reasonable person with a brand-new expense account would do and decided to visit as many restaurants as I possibly could before my first deadline.
In the end, I ate 26 different meals over the course of five days. What I discovered during this somewhat insane (and extremely cold) stretch of days is that New Yorkers, by and large, have separated into two distinct factions. People are no longer tentatively returning to restaurants. They are firmly “in” or they are firmly “out,” and the New Yorkers who are going out are really going out. There may be fewer people at restaurants overall, but the ones who do show up are doing their part to compensate for whatever energy might otherwise be missing.
I tried to stop in at Casa Mono but was shuffled off to Bar Jamón, a wine-and-ham bar next door that serves as something of a holding pen for people waiting to eat at the “real” restaurant. I was given the choice of squeezing into a lone seat between two different couples at a communal table but opted instead to stand alone at the counter to better hear the bartender’s sherry recommendations. As I got my glass of fino (though I wished I’d sprung for the amontillado after he gave me a taste), he told me that it was actually sort of slow for a Wednesday: “This is nothing,” he scoffed. “Usually the space is completely full.”
Who were all these other diners, exactly? It seemed like everywhere I looked, people were on dates. At Sauced, a dive-y wine bar in Williamsburg, I drank an aromatic chilled Italian red while I watched couples chat and make out between bites of focaccia and tinned sardines. These people did not seem concerned in the slightest about transmitting Omicron to one another, and the only people sitting outside were smoking cigarettes.
Nor did anyone seem too worried in Queens, where (after an extremely reasonable $75 feast of fried sardines and calamari, swordfish steak, stuffed salmon, raw oysters, whole grilled branzino, and french fries at Astoria Seafood) some friends and I stopped in to Sands of Persia, a new establishment that’s billed as a “dessert and shisha lounge,” although I was the only person there who ordered dessert. If you thought smoking hookah would go out of style during a pandemic of airborne transmission, this place will prove you wrong. Once I got over the enhanced risk of breathing in pure secondhand smoke — Can passion-fruit–flavored tobacco kill virus particles? I wondered — I loved it, especially when the belly dancer started performing, and I sipped my glass of hot mint tea. At one point in the night, she returned wearing a crown of lit candles and deftly shook her body across the space, enticing us to join her. My friend jumped at the opportunity and attempted a shimmy with the belly dancer’s encouragement while a section of men drinking elaborate chocolate frappés stared on.
Demand for fun doesn’t seem to wane during the daylight hours, either. When I walked past Taqueria Ramirez — on my way to try some pancakes at Chez Ma Tante — I noticed a queue stretching out the door for its al pastor, stewy suadero, and tripe tacos (I gave them a try; they lived up to the hype). Most of the people waiting to fill one of the eight seats inside seemed like regulars with one guy encouraging his friend to definitely order five tacos instead of the three he’d originally wanted.
At the Herald Square outpost of the Japanese chain Ichiran, I waited outside for 25 minutes before being granted entry to one of the restaurant’s individual dining booths. I even felt somewhat safe, protected by the walls that separated my eating area from a stranger sitting only a foot away, and the employee hidden behind the service curtain, until the sounds of other customers slurping quickly broke the illusion. There may be cheaper or more copious bowls of ramen out there, but sometimes not having to interact with anyone else is worth the premium.
If New Yorkers are willing to stand in the cold, they seem less excited about the idea of sitting there. As the temperature dropped, many places didn’t even bother with the pretense of outdoor dining. Nobody is willing to freeze in order to eat a steak, and besides, we’re all vaccinated now, right? During the entire week, I saw only one person get turned away from indoor dining, at Ras Plant Based, a vegan Ethiopian restaurant in Crown Heights, for an incomplete vaccination status.
I got turned away at Temple Bar — by Disco himself — but that was because I didn’t have a reservation. I wandered into the East Village instead, where I walked by the very neon cocktail bar Mister Paradise and did my best to avoid the bros spilling out into the street. It was almost midnight, but around the corner 7th Street Burger was full of people waiting for their orders on the sidewalk, so I stopped in. I ate my burger and fries on a ketchup-smeared table next to a pile of trash bags while a college couple in the corner talked about love languages and a table of four friends mused, correctly, on how good the food was. (They make my dream fries: crackly on the outside, extra fluffy interior.)
If there are two New Yorks as far as restaurantgoers (and non-goers) are concerned, the same seems true for the actual restaurants: While it was heartening to see so many places jammed, it was similarly upsetting to see casual neighborhood spots sit empty, servers all alone and likely hoping that anyone comes in. I’m thinking of a Friday lunch I had at Rangoon, a bright Burmese restaurant in Crown Heights, where I had one of the most memorable salads of my life, a slaw with fermented tea leaves and lots of crunchy seeds, but was one of only two tables there.
More than anything, it struck me that people wanted the comfort that comes from being inside a lively room filled with happy strangers, exactly the kinds of places we’ve all probably tried to avoid at one point or another over the last two years. Early on a Thursday night, I was sitting at the bar at Roman’s, the kind of Fort Greene restaurant that might be filled with attractive parents who have snuck out of their nearby brownstone for a date night. I ordered some fava-bean purée and the restaurant’s house “bitter” cocktail. As I sipped it and watched the space fill up, I noticed the two empty café tables that had been set up on the sidewalk. Would it be safer to sit out there? Maybe, but at all the seats around me, everyone looked so happy and so comfortable. We were having a lovely time; who would want to sit alone outside in the cold instead?
For anyone keeping track, here is a chronological list of the restaurants I’ve visited in the last week:
1. Shelsky’s of Brooklyn, 2. Caesar’s Empanadas, 3. Gramercy Tavern, 4. Javelina, 5. Bar Jamón, 6. Rucola, 7. Mekelberg’s, 8. Roman’s, 9. 7th Street Burger, 10. Agi’s Counter, 11. Rangoon, 12. Ras Plant Based, 13. Misi, 14. Sauced, 15. Golden Diner, 16. Scarr’s, 17. Great NY Noodletown, 18. Astoria Seafood, 19. Sands of Persia, 20. Chez Ma Tante, 21. Taqueria Ramirez, 22. Fausto, 23. Jongro Rice Hotdog, 24. Ichiran, 25. Planta Queen, 26. Sushi W.