John and Marie Li enjoy a glass of cabernet sauvignon...

John and Marie Li enjoy a glass of cabernet sauvignon and a dirty martini at Bryant & Cooper in Roslyn. Credit: Yvonne Albinowski

Seth’s initial tip came through Facebook Messenger on November 12, 2017: “if u live out east be on the lookout dp dough is coming to stony brook.” I had never met Seth Birdoff, but he had been feeding food news to my colleague, Erica Marcus, for years by the time I landed on his radar.

That first trickle of restaurant gossip eventually became a stream of intel on rumored openings, potential closings or must-have dishes: “Shah opened in New Hyde Park,” “U need to try the agnolotti at small batch,” “Krung Tep Thai Bistro changed ownership and staff.”

Eventually, the correspondence unfurled to longer exchanges. Seth sent photos of a new hibachi place in Plainview (“on my hibachi scale 8.5 out of 10”). He rhapsodized about a steakhouse in Las Vegas that “made Luger’s look like Boulder Creek,” and called a certain poke “the Mona Lisa of poke bowls.” With his sincere lament about a taco spot in Hicksville (“I was saddened they do not make their own tortillas”), it clicked for me that Seth’s food geekiness was almost equal to my own. It was inevitable that we meet, because who is as totally bananas about restaurants as a restaurant critic?

Seth Birdoff dines out at Lola in Great Neck and...

Seth Birdoff dines out at Lola in Great Neck and chats with Chef Lenny. Credit: Yvonne Albinowski

Turns out, on Long Island, plenty of people are bona-fide dining fanatics, with about 69,000 of them clustered on a raucous Facebook group called the Tri-State Restaurant Club. There, a straightforward post about dinner could unleash a squall of comments and micro-arguments. Many posters would eat out two, three, five times a week—some, every night—spending small fortunes as they bounced from place to place, uploading photos and unceremonious opinions into a rolling, all-hours debate.

Tri-State was not a place for the timid or the ambivalent, and Seth (an active member) was neither of these things, as I found out later at the bar inside Miko Sushi & Hibachi, the 8.5-level hibachi place he messaged me about the year before. It had become something of a haunt for him, one of many strung across Nassau County. “I normally only come here when I’m stressed,” he said, reaching for a short rib. It was a few weeks before restaurants and bars would be shut down as the coronavirus washed across New York, but none of us knew that yet, and the bar was packed.

To our left, an Italian septuagenarian chewed edamame and blasted a soccer game from his iPhone as I peppered Seth with questions about the organic growth of his food obsessiveness. He raised his soft-spoken voice above the happy hour roar to explain. “Back in the day, in Little Italy before it became really big, [my father and I] were walking down the street and we were hungry, and we found a hole-in-the-wall restaurant,” said Seth. He was 12 or 13, and his parents had recently divorced; his father had moved from Long Island into the city.

David Birdoff began taking the young Seth out to eat: To Blue Nile, a now-closed Ethiopian place on the Upper West Side, and to that hole-in-the-wall Little Italy spot, La Mela, which they adopted as their own. “It’s like an Italian bar mitzvah, is the best way I can put it,” said Seth, now 45. By his rough estimate, he added, these days he eats out “three and a half times a week.”

“Three and a half? What’s the half?”

“Uber Eats,” he answered. Seth’s Great Neck apartment is ringed by superb restaurants, and so on the nights he doesn’t feel like cooking or making rounds through the restaurants, taquerias, and sushi bars that are homes away from home, he orders in. Generally, though, when Seth knocks off from his job at Altice, he gravitates to an etched web of haunts that have morphed over the years. For a long time he was a regular at Shiro, a hibachi place in Carle Place; when he decided he ate there too often, he became a regular at Christiano’s, an Italian restaurant in Syosset that was rumored to be the spark for the Billy Joel song (“Bottle of red, bottle of white...”). “They made my favorite bolognese,” said Seth, a little dreamily.

But then Christiano’s closed, and Seth moved on again: To Kumo in Syosset, and Lola in Great Neck, and Biscuits & Barbecue in Mineola, where the mac-and-cheese—his litmus test for many places—still sends him into rapture.

Over time, Seth became the guy who always showed up on opening night, or at least opening week. When chef Michael White opened Osteria Morini at Roosevelt Field, Seth was there on day one. When the Brazilian steakhouse Fogo De Chao opened in Carle Place, Seth was there, too, during a private party for the Yelp Elite Squad, a ninja-level community for qualified Yelpers. Seth penned more than a hundred reviews and took plenty of photos of the things he ate to earn his spot in the group.

Taken as a body of work, Seth’s reviews are typically succinct and generous. When someone crosses him, though, he can unleash choice words. After eating at a prominent new Italian restaurant in Melville, Seth roasted the place on Yelp. “What happened?” I asked. “They sat us all the way in the back, and it’s not cheap,” he said. “You’re paying for a first-class meal and you’re sitting in steerage. I was not happy.” It was a cutting observation, delivered articulately, and I realized Seth, as many professional critics do, weighed the subtleties of the service experience as heavily as the food.

His observations would come to a halt in mid-March, of course, when the freedom to dine out was abruptly yanked away by shelter-in-place. Would Seth ever look at restaurant service through such critical eyes again? Would I? We’d both separately have a lot of time to ponder this as spring wore on.

Having a parent, like Seth’s dad, who is fervent about food can unlock a lifetime of adventurous dining. A few weeks after I first met Seth, inside Besito in West Islip, 15-year-old Sahiba Anand told me she has been eating sushi about half her life, by her estimation, as she was 8 or so when she had her first tentative bite of a spicy tuna roll. “I already knew how to use chopsticks,” she added.

Meher Johar, 15, Meeti Anand, and Sahiba Johar, 16, from...

Meher Johar, 15, Meeti Anand, and Sahiba Johar, 16, from Bay Shore, enjoy the bread pudding at Tres Palm in Babylon. Credit: Yvonne Albinowski

Her sister, Meher, 14, doesn’t go for raw fish, but she’ll throw down for nachos or at least guacamole, a bowl of which we polished off while we talked. As the chips dwindled, the server appeared with a bowl of ceviche. “What’s a ceviche?” asked Meher. “It’s shrimp, and calamari, and avocado, cucumbers and onion, and lots of lemon ... and tomatoes,” said Meeti Anand, with the cadence and patience of someone who tackles such explanations often. “You should try it.”

Meher shook her head dubiously. Meeti backed off; the busy mom, impeccably turned out with glossy, stick-straight dark locks, looks at least a decade younger than her 42 years. Meeti could almost be Meher’s older sister, except that she is her mother—and she’s been wheeling, guiding and leading her two daughters into restaurants almost since birth. “I’ve been bringing them to House of Dosas since they were in carriers,” she laughed. That helps explain why high schoolers Sahiba and Meher can talk dosas, ramen or the nuances of a bacon, egg and cheese sandwich with brio. “Bacon, egg and cheese is actually really trendy,” said Meher.

Curious about others like Seth, I had found Meeti through Long Island Foodies, a comparatively more chill (and smaller) Facebook group, where she posts about food mostly around her Bay Shore home—doughnuts, arancini, spinach and paneer pizza. Meeti, who moved to the United States from northern India at 14 and graduated from Lindenhurst High School, is a dental hygienist and real estate agent by day. At night, she transforms into an intrepid diner—heading to Wild Side Bistro in Oakdale, or MB Ramen in Huntington, or Flushing for Korean barbecue, or Pace’s Steakhouse in Hauppauge for a porterhouse. “You can’t go wrong with a porterhouse,” said Meeti.

Meeti long ago deemed eating out to be worth the expense and even takes her girls on an annual culinary pilgrimage to a new city such as Chicago or Philadelphia, though that trip would become a question mark for 2020. “When you’re making money, you look to spend it on quality time with your family,” Meeti said. “And to spend that time having a nice meal. It’s not just the money— it’s spending time together to talk about their days, and what they want to do in the future. I don’t mind—if I’m making money as an independent woman, I spend on that. I think it’s important.”

For all of her meals out, though, Sundays are sacrosanct in the Anand house. Meeti and her daughters live with extended family, and they cook together on that day every week. “Sundays, you have to be at home,” said Meeti, who might make buttered chicken or a pizza her daughters rave about. “It’s the best pizza!” exclaimed Sahiba. “She puts it on the grill.”

Appreciating the iconic foods of a culture, any culture, is a hallmark of the food-obsessed. When I found out about a guy named John Li who decided he wanted to eat all the pastrami iterations on Long Island, I knew I had to touch base with him, too—and we met at Kingfish Oyster Bar & Restaurant in Westbury on a January night. Weeks before it would pivot, like many restaurants, to takeout and delivery, Kingfish’s dining room was full. John turned out to be as impeccably turned out as he was voluble, and dove right into his own hero’s tale of how he landed at the altar of great food.

He had grown up in Shanghai eating plenty of street food, he said, and it wasn’t until years later, when he worked at Goldman Sachs in New York City, that he acquired a taste for high-end dining. “My first sushi experience was when I worked in finance, and we went to Nobu,” John said. “I got there early, and I was sitting at the bar, and started having a conversation with the sushi chef. The gentleman said, ‘Do you trust me?’ And, ‘what kind of fish do you like?’ ” Tuna and salmon, said John.

The chef obliged, but then slipped him blowfish, warning it could be poisonous in the wrong hands. “It melted in my mouth,” said John. As did a tuft of uni so sublime he has rarely been able to replicate the experience.

Around that time, John met a dancer named Marie and attempted to woo her with food. “She didn’t like me for two years,” he said. “I mean, I tried everything.” At one point, he had friends invite her along to a gathering at Vong, a now-closed Jean-Georges Vongerichten restaurant. He asked her to brunch there, and the two met at the SoHo spot Bubby’s. Yet Marie kept him at arm’s length until a chance meeting at Blue Ribbon Bakery years later.

John and Marie Li enjoy a glass of cabernet sauvignon...

John and Marie Li enjoy a glass of cabernet sauvignon and a dirty martini at Bryant & Cooper in Roslyn. Credit: Yvonne Albinowski

“He really doesn’t like vegetables that much,” said Marie, now John’s wife and sitting across from me at King Fish. That aversion has gotten John into some trouble—namely, in the form of gout—but he nevertheless orders a crab cake with soba noodles, followed by steak frites. As he eats the steak thoughtfully, I can tell it might not be working its magic on a guy who dines at Bryant & Cooper almost every week.

As if reading my thoughts, he said, “It doesn’t matter if a restaurant is high end or fancy, or just a hole in the wall. It’s not just the food. It’s ambience, too, that plays a factor, but most important that people provide you with a service, and they smile.”

John and Marie live in Dix Hills and now have a nine-year-old son. On Long Island, they make the rounds of sushi places and restaurants such as Kyma in Roslyn (“The branzino!” John said) and they travel often to the Caribbean, to Italy, to China. Once, unable to score a reservation at French Laundry in Napa, the Lis went instead to Auberge du Soleil, son in tow. “We had him in a high chair,” said Marie. “I think it was the only one in the whole place,” added John.

For a food-obsessed person, life’s bucket list is highly personal. And then there are quotidian bites and bog standards done well that pad the list, that promise small pleasures in the day-to-day. When Seth Birdoff was a student at the University of Delaware, he finished off plenty of calzones at DP Dough, the place that eventually fueled that first tip to me. While he is not above the occasional spinach-and-mozz calzone, Seth’s tastes have, like those of most people in middle age, evolved. He treks into Queens and the city often, and not being much of a drinker, reckons he can get in and out of some places “for $17 or $18,” he said. “I pay for it with overtime.”

But he still appreciates stumbling across the everyday done well. One day, early in our correspondence, Seth Birdoff sent a brief but firm call to action: “If u near grand lux try their happy hour burger.”

I arranged to meet Seth inside the soaring chain bistro Grand Luxe Cafe at Roosevelt Field Mall. From a high top table in the bar, we ordered just that. “We should get the sliders, too, to compare,” I said. Seth didn’t bat an eye—he understood why you might want two almost identical plates of beef on the table, side by side.

When both arrived, I ate a slider and he took a few bites of the burger, and then we wordlessly traded plates. “I don’t often get sliders, because they’re easy to overcook,” Seth said.

“I think the sliders are better,” I ventured. He agreed. And soon, we parted ways, unaware our dining-out days were hurtling toward a hard stop. The first COVID-19 cases had cropped up in the United States, and on March 16, dine-in operations were suspended throughout New York state. It was unclear if restaurants on Long Island, or anywhere, really, would ever be the same.

As the closures wore on, my comrades grew restless. Like everyone else, Meeti and her daughters were cooking like mad, and not just on Sundays anymore. “We miss going out to restaurants,” Meeti texted. “Hopefully this will all be over soon.”

In Great Neck, Seth seemed tense and melancholy. Stuck at home, he relied on Whole Foods deliveries and Uber Eats, and emailed updates about his home-cooking—matzo ball soup, sloppy joes. The hole that the restrictions had left in his life was palpable, though. “The days just seem to blend into each other,” he complained.

About three weeks in, unable to contain himself any longer, Seth drove to Mineola. “I was getting a bit on edge, so I ventured out to biscuits and bbq,” he wrote via Messenger. “It was very good, as always. Especially the mac-and-cheese. I needed it, as you know.”  

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