Coronavirus

What I Miss Most About Restaurants Is Trying New Things

It was time for me to get out of my comfort food rut. Maybe you should, too.

Mapo-tofu rigatoni from St. Oners. | Photo by Maddy Sweitzer-Lammé

During the first two weeks of quarantine, I made pasta almost every day. I dug a bag of frozen pesto out of my freezer, ate bucatini with canned sardines, lemon and enough garlic to ward off any potential COVID-19 carriers. Then, I transitioned to baking, cranking out loaves of banana bread and recreating my mom’s recipe for chocolate chip cookies until there wasn’t a bar or chip of chocolate remaining.

Those weeks were all about comfort food, and for good reason. There were enough surprises happening in the world, I didn’t need any more. Angela Cicala taught me to make this chickpea pasta, Ange Branca and her small but mighty team made Ramly burgers and chicken adobo. We all turned to the foods we know and love, and that was good for us. But eventually, the sheen of familiarity wore off. Where is the wonder? Will anything shock my palate back to life?

The thing I miss most about restaurants is that feeling of simultaneous surprise and recognition, when a dish hits that perfect balance of being both totally new and completely recognizable. I felt it the first time I ate the coconut rice at Kalaya. I felt it the first time I ate the hummus at Zahav. I’ve often felt it at Di Bruno Bros. tasting a piece of oozing, funky cheese. I felt it when I tried the mapo tofu rigatoni at St. Oners, just a few days before the whole world shut down.

It turns out it’s kind of hard to try new things when you’re stuck at home. When I called a wine shop recently to buy a couple bottles, they asked me what kind of wine I usually drink, and I had to work pretty hard to convince them that what I wanted was actually the opposite of whatever I usually drink. Just give me something new, I begged, I promise not to be mad if I don’t like it.

I rarely order delivery, but when I do, I tend to stick to a tight list of tried-and-true favorites. Takeout is too unpredictable otherwise. Too risky a gamble. But after several orders of my favorite Chinese takeout, a lot of tacos from my neighborhood spot, and many, many bowls of pasta, I’ve decided it’s time to branch out.

Like so many of the food-obsessed, I have a running list of restaurants I want to visit — places that have been recommended to me, places that I’ve walked past and smelled, places that have only recently opened. I’m guessing you have a similar list. Here’s a reminder you may or may not need: Many of those places are still there. A lot of them are open, at least part of the time.

I’m looking to order anything new — something that I’ve never had before, including but not limited to: the the constantly rotating styles of tamales from Proyecto Tamal, this Dalgona coffee creation from Barbuzzo, the charred, chili-lemon wings from Gigi Pizza.

The last meal I ate in a restaurant was a pizza and a glass of wine at one of my long-time favorite spots. It was comforting to sit at the bar and have a familiar plate of food handed to me by a person who has handed me many other plates of food. But now I regret that meal. I find myself wishing I had one last memory of newness, when my computer screen, the contents of my pantry, and the inside of my home are all too familiar. For those sheltering in place, I suspect the feeling is mutual.