Good Evening
Good Evening

Amid pandemic, food critic Scott Vogel pens a love letter to restaurants

Avocado toast features grilled sour dough bread topped

Avocado toast features grilled sour dough bread topped with guacamole, sliced avocado, heriloom tomatoes, black bean and corn salsa, pickled red onion, and chili oil drizzle at Dirty Taco and Tequila in Rockville Centre. Credit: Daniel Brennan

Last year, when I moved into my second-floor apartment above a Chinese restaurant, more than a few friends questioned my sanity. Didn’t I realize that the stairwell would forever smell of sesame chicken and greasy egg rolls? That the sight of patrons laden with bags of takeout would be constant? That the voice of Frances, who runs the place, had a shrillness capable of rattling floorboards under a bed? Yes, yes and yes. “But think of the convenience,” I replied simply.

Let me admit my bias right away: I have long believed that human beings were never meant to make their own food, a theory that I share with, yes, lazy people everywhere. But not just them. A child’s first meal, as any neonatologist will tell you, does not involve the baby scrolling through online recipes, dashing to the car, wandering Stop & Shop in search of green cardamom pods and then returning home to burn the basmati rice. No, the baby just visits its mother.

In short, eating out is natural. Self-cooking is not. Almost intuitively, we entrust our health, wellbeing and ongoing need for fuel to utter strangers—people we will never meet, working in kitchens we will never see.

That predilection for being fed by others, along with the social interaction it provides, is part of what’s made the present moment so confounding, at least for me. That and my stubborn refusal to heed the warning of well-meaning folks who begged me to restock the pantry, blithely presuming I knew how to stock one in the first place. These days, like a modern-day grasshopper to their ants, I can usually be found famished and cranky, or trying to construct meals out of instant ramen seasoning packets and a bag of rice cakes, or spaghetti and a jar of tomato sauce with a “best by” date of October 2017.

But the thing that bothers me most is the silence. As of this writing, the restaurant below has been shut completely for weeks. The sights, the smells, Frances’ voice—all of it gone.

Yes, it could be worse. So much worse. During this period of unspeakable, multivalent horror, I should just be glad I’m still alive, that I have a job and boxes of pasta. And yet, I miss restaurants, dammit. Terribly. Which is exactly what you’d expect a restaurant critic to say, I suppose. Still, the intensity with which I’ve missed them, the ongoing ache of a restaurant-less life, has taken me by surprise.

Order takeout, you scream. Yes, of course. I have and I will. And yet, as this season of worry and reflection continues, my mind keeps returning to the pleasures that can’t be delivered, the millions of minor joys and missteps that only come with eating at a private table in a public setting. I miss them all.

I miss the waiter who, when you ask about the specials, panics and rushes into the kitchen. Eavesdropping on the next table and discovering, with great relief, that your problems are nothing like theirs. The look of happy surprise that unfailingly greets a single candle in a slice of cheesecake. The bartender’s face falling when you tell him you want the house gin instead of Bombay. That place where they know what you want as soon as you walk through the door, because it’s your place.

I miss unwrapping a pat of butter. Asking three times and hearing two apologies before the steak knife finally arrives. Laughing at menu typos and pretending I’m not too old to read type that small. The insistent smoke and sizzle of skirt steak as it winds its way from kitchen to table. Realizing it is still happy hour for five more minutes. Discovering that the rest of the table is on keto so I have the bread basket to myself. Strangers who smile when I ask if that seat at the bar is taken.

Truffle fries, everywhere truffle fries. Dazed and sweaty chefs who can’t resist leaving the kitchen to greet a few tables. Lingering over coffee because the conversation is just too good. All the special dinners, the birthdays, the anniver- saries, the breakups.

I miss the instinct for generosity that is now taking a different form as restaurants around the country galvanize to feed doctors and nurses and EMTs.

The thousands and thousands and thousands of things that must be done, and all the people who have to do them—from farmers and ranchers to lettuce harvesters, maître d’s, dishwashers, distillers, chefs, sous chefs, expediters, napkin folders—before dining out is even possible. I miss that whole ragtag army of people dedicated enough, and crazy enough, to devote their lives to serving the best food they can. And my fervent hope is that all of them will do what it takes to soldier on through these perilous times. Just hang on, and I promise I’ll be back. We all will.

Latest reviews