Dear restaurants, I miss you.
Updated: May 3, 2020
Fairly early on in the pandemic, maybe the first week in March when we were still in the foyer of denial, when we didn't realize what we were going to lose—the lives, the jobs, the hugs, the whole landscape of a smile hidden behind a mask, the sanity. Back then, just after the restaurants all closed down, I read something that rang true. It clearly touched a nerve with many because it was retweeted and shared all over the place. It was something like, "I wish I had more hobbies than eating out." It struck me as quite funny, and also true. And now I feel it acutely: Restaurants, I miss you.
Restaurants are where I went to gather with my girlfriends, to reconnect with old friends, to celebrate milestones, to feel cared for, like a human, not just a mom. Restaurants are where I fled for comfort, to find peace, to capture some joy at the end of a long day, after a particularly difficult time, when I felt all sorts of doubt or frustration. At those tables, in the clamor of a dining room just past 8pm, I fell in love, had my heart broken, and put back together. At restaurants, I have listened to friends grieve, held their hands, and wiped away their tears. Short of giving birth to my children, restaurants are where nearly every moment of significance in my life has taken place. In restaurants, I found myself. And now, they're gone.
I know how I sound to you. Yes, I know. How dare I miss restaurants? How dare I describe that sort of loss? It's a privilege for sure, to feel a loss like this, of my restaurants. I own that. But it's the truth. It's not all I miss, sure, and not all I yearn for, but it is something that keeps nagging at me. Restaurants have always been there. Even from the time I was a kid, when my parents divorced and my father could not really cook. He took us out to fancy places like Maxwell's Plum, and Rumplemeyer's, but also to local diners like The Green Kitchen and neighborhood joints like Rupert's on the Upper East Side. These were the places that fed me, that kept me going. Restaurants are where I worked when I first left the law, a young stupidly fearless kid hoping to find a different career. Restaurants took me in.
And then they gave me a career, not in front of house as I had originally imagined, but as a journalist. And then, well then there were so many restaurants, so many meals, dizzyingly beautiful meals. (And even the bad ones, still memorable, right?) I had it all.
And now, at the end of the day, when my last nerve has frayed from homeschooling my six year old, and battling with my ten year old teenager-in-training, all I want is to go out for dinner. I want to meet my husband, to get together with my friends. I want to stroll up to Court Street, settle in at Bar Bette, the last restaurant I had been to before all this started. I want to pull open the door, feel the warmth, the welcome, to be seated in that glow, where I will be cooked for, cared for. Where I can linger, be slow, talk, think, laugh. It's what I crave, and maybe you do too.
Not long before the shelter-in orders, I met an old friend for lunch at Prune. We had not seen each other in a while. We shared a bottle of wine, a salad, a burger, some ripe cheese. We talked for a long while as old friends do. It was a sunny day, but cold out, and we had a little two top in the window. I could feel the frigid air through the window, and the warmth of the sun on the table. Sure the food was excellent, but it wasn't just that. It was all of it—the softness of the lighting, the tightness of the tables, the intimacy of others' conversations, so near to be audible and yet somehow private. It was the care of the waiter, in a starched apron tied around his waist, pouring wine when the glass got too low. It was the marble bar with the Friday New York Times folded neatly next to a bowl of lemons.
Looking ahead, it's hard to say what will be, when the tide will turn, when we can hope to reopen. But I can't imagine a world without restaurants in it. Just the sheer volume of people employed by our industry, the economic impact the industry makes on the nation, is reason enough for us to make a brilliant come back. A total of 701,000 jobs were lost in March, according to the US Department of Labor’s monthly report. While no sector was immune, restaurants and bars accounted for 60%, or 419,000, of the jobs cut. So yeah, we have to come back. (And we can give back in a number of ways—from checking in on our favorite local spots, to calling our representatives to making donations.)
But it's more than our economy that's at stake. It's the moments. It's the first hellos and the last goodbyes. The blind dates, and the anniversaries, and the graduations. The overpriced Valentine's dinner and the meals with friends that you never want to end. It is the music of hospitality, the sense of ease and effortlessness, of being sheltered somehow, of being cocooned in a safe place to share a moment, and another moment, and another, until the moments become years, and the years become a lifetime. That's what's at stake. And it cannot be lost.