What Americans Missed Most About Going to Restaurants. (It Wasn’t the Food.)

On Wednesday, dining rooms in New York City will be allowed to fill every seat for the first time since last March. This is big, in theory. In reality, we will probably keep seeing six-foot spaces between tables and plexiglass partitions for as long as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention keeps recommending them.

But if you’re curious about what restaurants are and what makes them click, it’s been illuminating to watch them come back one piece at a time. In the past couple of weeks it’s been possible to see that a half-empty dining room, if it has people sitting at the bar, can feel more exciting than one that’s almost full.

So many modern restaurant interiors are designed around their bars that we take their contribution for granted. All those shakers clattering and bar stools swiveling and bartenders reaching for a bottle or a rag; the customers sitting down and getting up again: Bars are perpetual motion machines that help turn the larger, slower gears in the dining room. Turn off the lights at the bar and it’s hard to get any momentum going in the rest of the space. The restaurant feels hollow at the core.

Now, close the bar and the dining room — what we used to call “the restaurant.” Replace them with tables and chairs outside, as many cities did last summer. What you have still feels like a restaurant, even though it may not look like one. In some respects, dining outdoors gives us more of what we come to restaurants for. Do you enjoy checking out the clothes people have chosen to exhibit themselves in before leaving home? You’ll see a greater range of footwear, fabrics and fashions in 10 minutes outside Buvette than you will during a whole night in its back room.

Eating outdoors gives us more than opportunities to look at interestingly attired strangers. There are, for example, interestingly attired friends.

Last week I had dinner inside Sona, the Indian restaurant that moved into the space on East 20th Street where Antoine Westermann used to run his “bistro of beautiful birds,” Le Coq Rico. After eating, I left and walked east for about 15 steps before I saw an editor I used to work with, sitting at a table in the street in front of Gramercy Tavern. He was wearing a dark plaid blazer over a canary-yellow polo shirt, a combination I’d never seen on him or anybody before. My first thought was: He looks terrific. My second thought: relief that he’d survived the pandemic and was eating out at what’s been one of his favorite restaurants for years.

Then I noticed the woman standing next to him, another person we’d both worked with. I hadn’t seen her since the pandemic began, either, and felt that particular feeling you have when you meet people again on the other side of some awful experience.

We made plans to eat together soon. Before I left, my friend in the blazer gestured down the street toward all the terraces built on the pavement and asphalt, and at the shrubs and flowers and tall, blazing patio heaters in front of Gramercy Tavern, and said, “This block is better than anything in Paris.”

Chance meetings like this are one of the reasons we get up off the couch and leave the house. It lasted less than five minutes, but it meant more to me than all the online cocktail hangouts I’ve dutifully shown up for (and all the others I forgot about).

The pandemic was, among other things, a huge uncontrolled experiment in replacing unmediated human encounters with online meetings or transactions. The boom in online retail was predictable, but most of us were surprised by how smoothly office life continued without the office. Our country may be on the brink of a drastic shift toward working from home that will have repercussions for real estate, transportation, tax revenues and about a thousand other things.

While you can work and shop online, though, you can’t eat online. You can order food and eat it at home, as millions of people did. The home delivery and takeout market is busy now trying to consolidate its pandemic gains. Meanwhile, though, dining rooms are as busy as I’ve ever seen them, especially downtown; reservations at new spots and old favorites are tight, and there’s a slightly febrile exuberance everywhere as New Yorkers remember what it’s like to leave the house for dinner and why we still bother to do it.

Those crowds and those difficult reservations may not last into the summer, but I suspect they will. And I think they’re a sign that those restaurants that have survived without going too far into debt will come back stronger than before, even some of the ones near office towers where entire floors are now empty.

We want to see other people. We want to sway next to them at concerts, scream next to them in movie theaters and eat next to them in restaurants.

Up until the vaccines came out, there was a lot of finger-wagging on social media directed toward restaurant diners. A lot of it was simply indignation that people were choosing to eat out during the pandemic when they could have kept everyone safer by staying home. Some of it was wrapped up with the idea that eating out is a bourgeois indulgence.

I was one of those who chose to go to restaurants following state and federal safety guidelines, so the finger-waggers rubbed me the wrong way. But I also thought they missed the whole point of going out. People in almost every society I can think of have a desire to eat together in public. If you spend any time observing that desire, you’ll see right away that it is much stronger than any wish to be waited on and then walk away when it’s time to do the dishes. It is why there were customers for indoor dining even when public-health experts were telling us how dangerous that was.

After a while the finger-waggers began to remind me of the people who pushed abstinence during an earlier health crisis, the AIDS epidemic. Both groups saw the behavior they disapproved of as a failure of moral fiber rather than as a predictable expression of an urge so deep that you could say, without much exaggeration, that cities are built on it.

This has been true for centuries. Public eating and drinking places have always been where people from different social circles can meet, exchange ideas and trade phone numbers.

Something new has been added over the past few decades, though. Restaurants have moved closer and closer to the center of the cultural life of American cities, even ones where there is a lot of cultural competition, like New York. Young people once waited tables to support their interest in other parts of the culture such as theater or visual art or literature. Now they believe that restaurant work itself is a kind of cultural pursuit, and they gather before their shift to taste orange wines the way earlier generations went to readings and gallery openings.

Whatever you think of orange wines, the fact is that the people who find them interesting form a loose social group. In a big, well-populated city, this group may overlap with hundreds of others: people who like Bernie Sanders, people who want more bike lanes, people who work for the police and people who want to defund the police, people who go to every meeting of the local land use committee, people who play in a salsa band.

People within those groups can meet one another online. But to meet people from the other groups, especially people who are interested in subjects you haven’t really thought about yet, we have coffee shops, bars and restaurants. They’re what we’ve got until somebody invents a better, more enjoyable way of eating and drinking while maintaining the social connections that keep cities moving forward.

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