All the Little Things We Miss About Restaurants
How much do we long to dine out again? Let me count the ways.
It’s been so long since I’ve been seated inside a restaurant that I’m starting to forget what it was like. When indoor dining was an option, I didn’t partake for all sorts of pandemic-y reasons, chief among them the fact that dining indoors in the COVID era, with all the safety precautions in place — the plexiglass between tables; the servers in hazmat suits — might have been too heartbreaking an experience for someone like me, someone who romanticizes the heck outta restaurants. To really, truly enjoy a restaurant (in the Before Times), you’d have to suspend disbelief a little bit — at least for the few hours you were there. To fully understand the vision of the chef, or the owner of the place, you had to completely immerse yourself in the experience. Their experience. You had to buy into their manufactured fantasy. Face shields and N95 masks are distractions too big for rooms that small.
The vaccine’s coming, though. And in the forthcoming $900 billion relief package, there’s a small chunk allotted to small businesses. Not nearly enough, no doubt, but still, there seems to be some light at the end of this hellish tunnel. But until we’re fully out, we’ll have to find some solace in reminiscing about the restaurant things we miss most. The things we didn’t know we’d miss until they were taken from us. The things we can’t wait to get back.
If you were ever a front-of-house worker, you know that when you’re setting up a dining room before a night of service, lighting the votives is the last task before opening the doors. There’s a reason: That very specific kind of lighting ties everything together — and the sounds and smells and sights of a dining room would feel so disparate without it. I miss those votives the most. I’m talking about the tiny candles that sit in the middle of the table, the main source of light inside any good dining room, flickering, creating that specific restaurant mood. They make people prettier, those candles. Something about the way they up-light a face.
Standing in Line
Waiting in a physical one, for some fancy-pants food, no less, always took me out of it. But sometimes, a restaurant would be so white-hot that fighting for a table, literally standing in line outside an establishment to eat inside of it, was part of the dining experience itself. Those are the lines I miss most, the ones that sparked tiny, fleeting food-and-drink-obsessed communities. Like the crowd that formed outside the pearly barbed-wire gates at Pizzeria Beddia on a Saturday night, or outside the wrought-iron gate at Hop Sing, or the lines that would snake through John’s Roast Pork, confusing as they were.
Trying New Things
We’ve written about this before, but it’s worth repeating, because it’s so easy to fall victim to the comfortable, the familiar, especially these days, when comfort is one of the few forms of happiness we have at our disposal. But restaurants were often the places we went to experiment, to live outside our comfort zones, to seek out the weird and wonderful. Remember having to ask your server about ingredients in the food you were about to eat? Because they were so friggin’ esoteric? The hell is puffed sorghum? And what’s it doing on my spring salad? Ah, those were the days. …
The Server Spiel
Oh, how I long to be asked, “Have you dined with us before?” How I wish someone would explain to me how a three-course menu worked, or what “small plates meant for sharing” were. I mean this with my whole heart: I cannot wait to be made dizzy by a wine description again. I can’t wait to try to hide my cringe from an egregious mispronunciation. And I can’t wait for a server to hit me with that “Looks like you hated it!” joke after seeing my plate licked clean.
A Properly Made Cocktail
Face it, cocktails at home are never what you want them to be. That’s because cocktails — like french fries; like raw oysters — are better enjoyed inside a restaurant. After all these months, we learned that the mixing and stirring and, honestly, bottle-collecting it takes to make a worthy cocktail in the confines of your own home … takes away all the fun of, you know, drinking it.
The Bar Itself
Bars were made for parties of two (maybe three, if you have enough room behind the middle stool to triangulate). And there’s no more fun to be had than a shit-talk-y, gossipy, booze-fueled conversation between two (or three) people, maybe over some fried snacks — particularly the stuffed fried olives at Royal Boucherie, or some samosas at the International Bar.
Ordering the Wrong Thing
Gambling at restaurants — on menu items you weren’t sure about but knew had potential — was half the fun. And God, remember the jealousy you felt seeing someone else at your table (or even at another table!) get the dish you actually wanted? That you didn’t know you wanted until you saw someone else get it? Your dish wasn’t bad, of course, but it wasn’t The One. It was a moment that was followed by a sense of I’ll get ’em next time optimism, hope for a more delicious future.