To All the Restaurants I’ve Loved Before
On the corner of Avenue C and 9th Street in New York, there’s a little restaurant called Esperanto. The menu is vaguely Brazilian and perhaps better described as Pan-Latin, but it doesn’t really matter. You come a little bit for the food and a lot for the vibe: urban tropicalia, with floral-print tablecloths on the wobbly metal tables. Those tables are tightly packed outside in the summer, when the windows are thrown open and the thrum of live samba reverberates down the block. You come because what a block it is—the perfect place to linger on sticky nights, right in the heart of a neighborhood just as loud and bright as the restaurant itself.
I came to New York for college, arriving in the swampy August heat, exhilarated and terrified all at once. A family friend insisted I meet her niece, a 20-something woman who lived in the East Village and for some reason (charity? A blood debt?) agreed to take my underage ass out for a night on the town. I met Sarah and a gang of her sophisticated-seeming older friends at her ramshackle little apartment. We walked from there to Esperanto, which was pulsing with the electric hum of music, exposed flesh, and the smells of palm sugar and dende oil. I remember jostling for a small table on the sidewalk, squeezing in next to one of Sarah’s handsome friends and feeling the prickle of attraction. I was astonished at the casual way she ordered moqueca, a dish I had never heard of, “for the table.” A server brought cocktails, and I was handed one, no questions asked. I was flush, and the city was buzzing. I was eating a rich seafood stew outside on the street. I was flirting with a stranger in New York City. This was it. I had arrived, and this sliver of a neighborhood restaurant was now part of my origin story.
Fifteen years later, I lived three blocks from Esperanto. I passed it on my morning runs, empty and quiet; and again at night, when it swelled with action once more. I went in a few times over the years, but never again did it live up to that first night, and eventually I stopped trying, content to let a small wave of nostalgia hit me each time I passed.
Restaurants remind me so much of the sea, their mere presence dynamic but constant, their rhythms ebbing and flowing each day like the tides. Or at least, they did, until the virus came and swept them away.
I don’t need to reiterate all of the gory details, and so much still remains unknown. What we do know is that this is a crisis of unprecedented scale for the restaurant industry as a whole. Five to seven million restaurant workers are poised to lose their jobs in the next three months, according to the National Restaurant Association, which estimates that the industry will sustain a $225 billion loss in that time period. Thousands of restaurants across the country have already shuttered, leaving workers scrambling for unemployment, to say nothing of the untold numbers of undocumented workers who help the whole machine run smoothly who are now in free-fall, with nary a safety net in sight.
The various shelter-at-home orders enacted across the country generally allow for the continued operation of “essential” businesses such as restaurants in a limited capacity, and in the first few weeks, many pivoted swiftly and smartly to takeout and/or delivery operations. Others became marketplaces overnight, selling dry goods, produce, prepared foods and toilet paper. Still others transformed, essentially, into soup kitchens, providing free meals to those in need.
All of these measures are noble and necessary, but they are all reactionary, and likely temporary. I reported a story last week about how many restaurant owners who had initially switched to delivery and takeout were now making the difficult decision to close entirely out of safety concerns for their staff and customers. Reporting this story nearly broke me; I spent hours on the phone with big-name chefs like Andy Ricker and Ashley Christensen as they expressed their very human feelings of helplessness, anxiety, and frustration. It was brutal to hear from so many owners forced to lay off their staff and watch as the businesses they spent years building implode essentially overnight due to circumstances completely outside of their control.
I’ve been writing about food professionally for over a decade, covering restaurants for publications like this one and co-authoring cookbooks with chefs who are often trying to translate their restaurant’s vision onto the page. I have worked in restaurants and know firsthand the competition and camaraderie that develops within their walls. And, perhaps most importantly, I am a fan of restaurants, a person who eats out alone, together, for work, and for pleasure. Nearly every special occasion of my life has been marked by a restaurant meal, and many less-than-special occasions, too (I’m thinking particularly of a breakup in an Indian restaurant known for being entirely illuminated by Christmas lights). I realize what an enormous privilege it is to be able to have lived this way, and I will admit that I often took it for granted.
The feeling I have now is one of grief. I experience jags of pointed sadness every time I talk to a chef or read about another closure, but the best way to describe it, from a macro level, is that I feel I’m preemptively mourning the loss of a way of life. Meeting friends for small plates and a glass of wine? Gone. Celebrating a promotion or anniversary with a fancy meal? Not anymore. Happy hours, cook-offs, dinner dates: poof. Especially in big cities where restaurants serve as a necessary third place, the loss is enormous and challenging to comprehend.
We don’t know what the future of restaurants looks like. Many of the chefs and owners I’ve talked to in recent weeks express doubt over ever being able to reopen, and question whether diners will even want, or be able to, eat out at all. I find myself wavering between the dull ache of grief and hot, sharp anger—at the failure of the stimulus package to help small business owners, at the plight of undocumented workers who are not eligible for any aid at all, at the cavalier attitude of customers who don’t realize that anyone providing food for you right now is quite literally risking their life to do so.
I’m no economist, but having a front-row seat to the sudden and violent demise of the restaurant industry only convinces me further that this implosion is a harbinger for what to expect across other industries—retail, manufacturing, construction, hotels, personal services, and more. Even if you are lucky enough to have and keep a stable job, you will feel the ripple effects from the sectors hurting most.
Is there a hopeful note I can end this on? I’m not yet sure. Maybe that the government has provided a little bit of relief, or that there seems to be a feeling of solidarity (albeit a helpless one) in the industry. No one knows what to do; everyone is simply trying their best. What “best” means is a moving target.
Coronavirus isn’t going to wipe out all restaurants forever. Humans are resilient creatures, chefs maybe even more so. Some restaurants will reopen, new businesses will emerge. But I do think the dining landscape will be irrevocably altered in ways both obvious and subtle. “Do you really think people will want to share plates after this?” said Jessica Koslow when I ran into her distributing free meals to laid-off service workers earlier this week. I think of what “going out to dinner” used to entail and begin to feel clammy—so close to other humans, all of our aerosolized particles commingling freely in a crowded space.
When I lay down at night I use an exercise to try to slow my brain: I imagine I’m on a boat, bobbing gently on the water, drifting toward sweet sleep. Lately the sea in my mind has been too violent for this to work. So instead I remember, replaying small moments of pleasure I fear I’ll never have again. That first night at Esperanto is burned somewhere deep in my skeletal core, and on top of it is a human made up of memories of the scents, sights, and flavors from all the meals I’ve ever loved. I hope to add more someday.