So was Nour eddine Bouzerda.
“No WAY!” the server all but shouted when he spotted me at a corner table in the honey-lit dining room. “We’re going back to life!” the Moroccan native said. I stood up to greet him and found myself in an embrace previously reserved for members of my tribe and bubble mates. Let’s just say Michelle Obama would have been proud of our bear hug. The only reason I let go was because I wanted a drink before the arrival of my friend and colleague, Jura Koncius, and her husband, Morgan Dodd. I hadn’t had the pleasure of her company in over a year. For old time’s sake, I requested a Manhattan, up. I needed an old friend ahead of an old friend.
Frankly, I felt a little rusty in the hosting department. Critics rely on a gaggle of people — friends, family, colleagues, neighbors, the interesting couple they meet at a show — to help them do their jobs: taste the full range of a menu. (“It’s like a dinner party every night!” someone once described my job, leaving out the fact that the job requires me to remember a thousand details and then weave them into something people will want to read.) The pandemic forced me to slash my list from dozens of dining companions to a mere handful of people close to me, including a significant other who couldn’t recuse himself from restaurant reviews because those meals were mostly takeout and delivery, eaten within our own four walls or outside, even in winter. What was he going to do, ask for a separate table?
“Jura! Morgan!” Now it was my time to cheer the reappearance of people I missed. Jura got a collegial kiss on the cheek and Morgan a firm handshake, maybe my third of the year, but not before the two of us did a little do-si-do with our elbows — a dance that already looks dated, like mood rings and pet rocks (Google ‘em, kids). Not only was I returning to a place that is important to me, I was doing so with someone I treasure and without the masks that had muffled our voices and muzzled our features. The fact we were all vaccinated, and got a green light from the CDC, was as reassuring as daybreak.
Every critic I know has a place where they can let their hair down, order exactly what they want — just be themselves. For me, that sanctuary is Buck’s, which has been around for almost as long as I’ve been The Post’s hired appetite and whose owner, James Alefantis, I’ve known socially for decades. (It hasn’t all been fun and games. After a less than glowing review in 2014, in which I dinged the chewy fish tacos and questioned how much time the restaurateur was around, he called to let me know my column contained a mistake. The “dish towels” I wrote about were in fact white linen napkins. Did I detect a little glee in his voice?)
Here and there, signs of the apocalypse, er, pandemic remain. The seats, some separated by a stack of wood, are still spaced out, and the tables display hand sanitizer along with a glass-enclosed candle and a cockscomb plant. A design maven, Jura frowned at the generic plastic bottle and its half-gone gel. “It’s all about the look,” she whispered, as menus are doled out. She parted a curtain next to our table and we spy a bunch of propane tanks, seemingly watched over by a vintage cement deer. (Remember, this is Buck’s Fishing & Camping, not the Hot Spot du Jour. Yes, that’s a canoe over your head.)
In my last review, I gently chided the restaurant for trapping its menu in amber. CliffsNotes version: It. Never. Changes. Honestly, though? Now? I would be disappointed not to see the same-old, starting with the carrot-yogurt dip if we’re feeling virtuous or onion rings if we want a splurge. The three of us were grateful to find the onion rings (lacy as ever and too hot to immediately munch), the wedge salad with its shower of blue cheese and bacon, the crab cakes with their hand-cut french fries. Without asking, the staff put three dishes in the middle of the table, a sweet spot for sharing.
So much to catch up on! But first: Wasn’t it wonderful to be somewhere other than home? “People are sick of their own cooking, or takeout,” said Jura. “Sick of spouses!” she said in front of her husband, whose smile suggested he knew exactly what she was talking about. A year of what feels like house arrest for a lot of us has curbed conversation. “No movies, no symphony, no travel,” said Morgan, ticking off discussion topics that went unbroached because few of us were going to theaters, concerts or airports.
Buck’s is neighbors with the bookstore Politics & Prose, which means authors frequently wine and dine in the restaurant, and Alefantis seems to know every artist, scribbler and socialite in Washington. I never go that I don’t see a famous face in the mix. But it’s also a draw for food lovers who appreciate well-done simplicity and the option to be unbothered if a scene is not your thing. The trio at the corner of the bar? Meet my old neighbors, Will and Rachel Caggiano, the most regular of regulars, and their younger son, Cole. (His older brother, Jack, is on the floor as a runner and busser.) More table hopping ensued when my Post colleague Carol Leonnig strolled in with her husband, John.
Most nights are like that at Buck’s: meals chased back by stories you can bring home and share, like the leftover prime sirloin, cooked just the shade you ask.
Our bottle of nero d’avola was drained, but we were still grazing. Bouzerda checked our pulse. “Another bottle?” he asked. No takers. “We also have it by the glass,” he said. We declined; it was a school night. Bouzerda disappeared only to return with a bottle and pour a generous splash into each of our glasses. Danny Meyer wrote the book on hospitality, but this guy pours the charm into practice.
As if on cue, it started raining outside — not so much cats and dogs as lions and tigers and bears. Diners who had been seated on the plant-dressed front patio were ushered to the city’s most inviting communal table, 22 feet of poplar from the Great Dismal Swamp that runs practically the length of the dining room. The thunder and lightning only added to the coziness. Buck’s became even more of a village square when Morgan discovered a beloved former boss seated at the epic plank of wood. Truly, the reunion of “Friends” on TV has nothing on the reunions of friends in real life — everywhere — as we emerge from our cocoons.
“Be sure to put this on my bill,” I told Bouzerda, pointing to my now-empty wine glass. The expert server has a little history of “forgetting” to charge for things (which I compensate for by over-tipping).
As I left the warmhearted restaurant for the storm-drenched parking lot out back, something occurred to me. My earlier embrace with a favorite waiter was not so much the server hugging me, but me welcoming Buck’s — all restaurants, really — back into my life.
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