The Washington Post Magazine

The New Order

Food critic Tom Sietsema on what we lose when restaurants close
(Tom Haugomat for The Washington Post)

I’m not a candles-at-home kind of guy, not unless there’s company. But a funny thing happened on the way to what feels like house arrest — orders to work from home and stay there as much as possible during the pandemic. I’ve gone through a box of matches, igniting fires small (votives) and large (outside) to accompany the many meals I’ve been ordering in or picking up since restaurants stopped seating diners but continued feeding us.

For fancy takeout, place mats get placed and Aunt Carmen’s china comes out. French onion soup looks better in a glass bowl than in two plastic cartons (one for the cap of cheesy bread, FYI). On the nights someone in a mask and gloves drops off fried chicken, meatloaf or pizza, paper towels serve as napkins and wine goes into tumblers.

One recent cool spring evening, three of us dined alfresco, six feet apart from one another but basking in the glow of a newly acquired fire pit. When I shared my new routine with a friend, she texted back, “Must Maintain Civility.”

Later, it dawned on me: I was channeling the hearths of the Dabney and Maydan, among Washington’s warmest dining rooms. I’ve been playing restaurant, or at least trying to create the environments and rhythms most familiar and comfortable to me.

[Tales from an industry fighting for its life]

Here’s what stay-at-home orders look like to someone who has reviewed restaurants for more than three decades on both coasts: My fridge is strangely full, my dishwasher runs daily instead of weekly, and I haven’t worn a suit since early March. I’ve forgotten most of the passwords for my multiple OpenTable and Resy accounts, but I’ve improved my home bartending skills. While I still hear plenty from readers, for the first time in my career, no one’s emailing to complain about noisy dining rooms, indifferent waiters, bad tables, dirty restrooms, tipping on tax, out-of-date websites or (how quaint) the challenge of nailing a reservation at Anju or Seven Reasons.

Gee, do I miss the good old days. And boy, am I trying hard to summon them from home. Honestly, though, my new acquaintances Caviar, Postmates and Uber Eats can never replace all the in-the-flesh servers and chefs who have made Washington a premier restaurant destination in recent years.

It seems a lifetime ago that I had a desk downtown, knew where I’d be eating a month out and routinely came home from work — you know, dinner — when most people I know are off counting sheep. My last full week of reviewing found me squeezed into the hot new Albi in Navy Yard, eating Japanese-style pizza at a low table with a colleague at Tonari, ducking into Makan for Malaysian with my partner, breaking bread with a wine collector at Maialino Mare and returning to Randy’s Prime Seafood & Steaks in Vienna, where the yards-apart tables were reassuring for reasons other than privacy and the cooking made it a candidate for the Top 10 list of my long-scheduled spring dining guide.

Mentaiko pizza at Tonari in downtown Washington. (Laura Chase de Formigny for The Washington Post)
Diners at Makan, a Malaysian restaurant in Columbia Heights. (Laura Chase de Formigny for The Washington Post)

Which isn’t happening, obviously, although until restaurants were ordered closed, I was cautiously determined to introduce this year’s bumper crop of new good places to eat. The business I know best is resilient, after all. Since I started covering them, restaurants have survived the recession, 9/11, tax changes in meal deductions, natural disasters, death-of-fine-dining stories, even reactionary Yelp reviews.

Ultimately, no one at the office had to tell Pollyanna there wouldn’t be a spring dining guide. As headlines grew more ominous, dining rooms got emptier. Lunch at the typically bustling Q by Peter Chang in Bethesda, at high noon on Sunday, March 15, spelled out the news. The food — pearly shrimp dumplings, glossy pea shoots fragrant with garlic, folds of pork tossed with green pepper and packed with chile heat — was some of the best I’d ever had there, and the servers couldn’t have been more solicitous. Sadly, they were attending to six diners, strategically spread out in a dining room destined to fade to black.

[We’re staying home, but we can still taste the world through restaurant delivery]

Since then, my restaurant impressions have all been from a distance. I got a lump in my throat when I drove by Bresca on 14th Street NW, its windows all but hidden behind plywood. Picking up dinner at Gravitas in Ivy City, it was sad to be greeted by a bottle of Purell and bags of food on a long table, in a hushed dining room where most of the furniture had been pushed to the sides. It’s a luxury to still be eating meals from area restaurants, but even the best takeout is less when you subtract “Good evening” and a table with your name on it — some of the many fillips that make me grateful for restaurants and the people who animate them.

Like wars and disasters, the coronavirus pandemic forces us to confront a new order. We’re rethinking how we live our lives and what truly matters. I know I’m not alone in wondering how we’ll approach restaurants when the welcome mats — or at least some of them — return.

(Tom Haugomat for The Washington Post)

The pandemic has robbed people of their lives, livelihoods and loved ones. So when I reach out to a noted grief expert, I tell him I’m embarrassed, given the sweep of the tragedy, to acknowledge how bereft I feel. His response is reassuring. “Grief is a no-judgment zone,” says David Kessler, author of “Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief.” “The idea that someone lost their job and you mourn the loss of not being able to go out” is not paradoxical.

“Restaurants are the backdrop to our lives,” good times and bad, says the self-professed food enthusiast, who lost his 21-year-old son in 2016. “I’m a bereaved parent, but I also grieve for restaurants” that are no longer welcoming diners. On his late son’s birthday and the anniversary of his passing, Kessler honors him by visiting his favorite place to eat, Little Toni’s pizzeria in North Hollywood. Kessler hasn’t figured out when or if he’ll have a place to celebrate a life this year.

Restaurants are also big business. Before the pandemic cost so many of them their jobs, more than 15 million people were employed in the food service industry, about 10 percent of the private sector, according to the National Restaurant Association, which earlier this year forecast sales of nearly $900 billion. And the trade enjoys a built-in cheering squad: A 2016 Gallup poll found that the restaurant and computer industries tied for the best image that year, with 66 percent of Americans giving them a positive rating.

Even if you don’t eat out often, you know the significance of restaurants in special moments: First dates, anniversaries, major business transactions and even sad life markers — breakups, funeral receptions — often take place in one. “It’s human nature to be together and forget about what’s happening in the outside world,” says Thomas Keller, whose empire includes two of the best-known restaurants in the country, the French Laundry in Northern California and Per Se in New York. He and his peers, “true nurturers,” are aching under their inability to provide places of refuge right now. Instinctively, however, they go where they’re needed. Every cook I know has at least a little José Andrés in him.

Chefs, all too familiar with slim profit margins and touch-and-go market turns, frequently tell me they cook less for the money than for the pleasure of feeding people. Consider Anita Jaisinghani, the owner of Pondicheri in Houston, popular for its creative Indian breakfasts and bold spicing. When she opened her first restaurant, Indika, in 2001, she was so uncomfortable charging people for her food, she hid the cash register. “I didn’t want people to pay,” Jaisinghani says. Her hope was to greet people as if they were guests in her home. (With years of experience behind her, she’s now comfortable presenting a bill.)

The devotion to any restaurant starts with an essential trust — someone you don’t necessarily know is preparing something to go in your mouth. More practically, “people are not used to cooking three meals at home a day,” says Christina Nguyen, owner of the hipster Vietnamese restaurant Hai Hai in Minneapolis.

[What to know about the risks of restaurant takeout and delivery — and how to minimize them]

In fact, restaurants were not initially places to eat, but dishes to be eaten, says Rebecca L. Spang, author of “The Invention of the Restaurant.” The word “restaurant” comes from a French verb that means “to restore”; restaurants were originally broths with purported health benefits. Patrons ate them at tables in private rooms and at flexible mealtimes, unlike at inns or taverns with their set schedule and communal seating.

Centuries later, one of life’s sustaining pleasures has been snatched from our daily routines. With art, you can at least Google images from galleries and museums. Movies you can stream online, and music you can download. With restaurants, well, they call it “dining out” for a reason: You have to be present to “win” — to partake not just of food, but of ambiance, service and the camaraderie of fellow patrons.

Christina Nguyen owns the hipster Vietnamese restaurant Hai Hai in Minneapolis. (Matt Lien)
“It’s human nature to be together and forget about what’s happening in the outside world,” says chef Thomas Keller, whose empire includes Per Se in New York. (Deborah Jones)
LEFT: Christina Nguyen owns the hipster Vietnamese restaurant Hai Hai in Minneapolis. (Matt Lien) RIGHT: “It’s human nature to be together and forget about what’s happening in the outside world,” says chef Thomas Keller, whose empire includes Per Se in New York. (Deborah Jones)

Restaurants represent “a unique kind of human contact,” says Andrew Haley, author of “Turning the Tables,” which traces restaurants and the rise of the American middle class from 1880 to 1920. Dining rooms inhabit a space between public and private — “not on the street, [but] not in your home,” the so-called third place.

Attempts to re-create the experience from the confines of our own four walls have been error-prone, ingredient-deficient and without an artisan’s grace notes. Zoom might be good for confabs with colleagues and chats with loved ones. But video conferences can’t replace cooking aromas or sitting knee-to-knee with someone you care about.

My efforts to summon normalcy at home go only so far. No matter what songs I play at dinner, they don’t come close to the music of so many meals away from home. My partner is my partner is my partner. I love him, but he can’t stand in for all the company — friends, colleagues, strangers — a diner encounters. Mere months ago, I complained about servers interrupting conversations and loud dining rooms. What I’d give now to have a punchline stepped on or a bachelorette party parked next to me! Yes, I just typed that.

Life is smaller and less colorful without restaurants — more Kansas than Oz. I miss their luscious chaos.

And yet I wonder if I’ll be able to enjoy walking into a sea of eaters and drinkers with the zeal and anticipation I had before the coronavirus outbreak cleared everyone out. Besides depriving workers of their income and diners of places to make memories, the pandemic created Hitchcockian moments when seemingly harmless things — busy dining rooms, tight seating, once-ubiquitous “plates meant for sharing” — take on sinister tones. Tell me you haven’t watched a pre-pandemic restaurant scene on TV and cringed when characters air kiss, lick their fingers or eat off one another’s plates.

The takeout menu at Gravitas, in Northeast Washington, includes posole. (Dixie D. Vereen for The Washington Post)
Hanumanh, a Laotian restaurant in Shaw. (Laura Chase de Formigny for The Washington Post)

It’s too soon to predict what will become of many restaurants, 3 percent of which had gone dark by late March, and 11 percent of which were expected to close for good by the end of April, says Sean Kennedy, executive vice president of public affairs for the National Restaurant Association. He says the road to recovery from what he calls “an 8-magnitude earthquake” starts with “clear and consistent guidance from both government and safety officials.”

In March, New York celebrity chef Tom Colicchio said 75 percent of U.S. restaurants could disappear, a figure the television personality based on his tenure in the business and comments by the CEO of a fast-casual corporation he declined to name. Colicchio has since lowered his estimate to between 40 and 50 percent and says recovery will require not just massive government financial support, but sacrifices from landlords, suppliers and others in the business. Those in the best position to recover, he told me, might be the “true mom and pops” operating with smaller staffs and lower rents.

Several chefs told me that however and whenever they return to sit-down dining, takeout will remain. “Diversification isn’t going to be a choice,” says Jonathan Krinn, chef-owner of the upscale Clarity in Vienna, who envisions for his business “fine dining with a side of barbecue” — the latter being one of his new hits.

Restaurants can’t possibly return to their old selves, at least not immediately. I imagine fewer tables, longer lines outside restrooms, hand sanitizer where flowers used to be and shorter menus with fewer contributors. Among the many victims of the pandemic are some of the people who produce our food, such as the Pennsylvania sheep farmer, a source for Keller for more than two decades, who almost overnight lost 90 percent of his business. I worry about every lost position in the business, dishwashers — the linchpins of the restaurant kitchen — most of all.

Colicchio’s big question: “When will the public feel safe going into large spaces again?” I wonder about the small stuff, too. Will grateful diners ever feel comfortable shaking the hands of an owner or chef, or will nods and smiles have to suffice?

[At the heart of every restaurant]

“We’ll figure this out. We have no choice,” says Michael Schlow, whose restaurants in Boston and Washington include the Alta Strada brand. “I’m not whistling past the graveyard,” the chef told me, but his industry comprises “a group of survivors.” The owner of Hai Hai in Minneapolis agrees. “We won’t fold our carts,” says Nguyen. “People always have to eat, right?” Already, restaurants across the country are adjusting to a new normal. Vespertine, the avant-garde Los Angeles-area restaurant helmed by Jordan Kahn, has ditched its reality-suspending menu in favor of the Southeast Asian food Kahn cooked at the late Red Medicine.

Grief must have meaning, says Kessler. Even if it’s comforts we’re losing, it’s comforts we need now more than ever. Going forward, the author expects post-traumatic stress but also post-traumatic growth. For her part, Jaisinghani, the Houston chef, plans to keep her inventory low, streamline her menu and craft a better disaster/master plan for the unforeseen.

Rose Noel is executive chef at Maialino Mare in Washington’s Navy Yard neighborhood. (Laura Chase de Formigny for The Washington Post)
New York chef Tom Colicchio says the restaurants that are in the best position to recover after the pandemic might be the “true mom and pops.” (Smallz & Raskind/Bravo/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
LEFT: Rose Noel is executive chef at Maialino Mare in Washington’s Navy Yard neighborhood. (Laura Chase de Formigny for The Washington Post) RIGHT: New York chef Tom Colicchio says the restaurants that are in the best position to recover after the pandemic might be the “true mom and pops.” (Smallz & Raskind/Bravo/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)

She hopes the industry gains new respect. “Cooking at home might make the public more appreciative of restaurants” — the labor and thought involved — she says, adding that the pandemic might also humble some of her peers. “There’s too much ego in the business.” She might be right, but since the pandemic, humility has been abundant in every conversation I’ve had with chefs and others in the field.

My spring guide was going to showcase the ongoing freshness of the dining scene, with an emphasis on young mom and pops, many of them international in flavor, that make Washington one of the best food cities in the country. Every year has plenty of good work to cheer, but 2020 was shaping up to include a lot of cherries on top. Maybe later this year — knock on wood and fingers crossed — I can still tell you why you ought to try Aracosia for Afghan, Hanumanh for Laotian and Thamee for Burmese.

You’d think a food critic without any reservations in the foreseeable future might pine most for meals away from home. I’m still eating plenty of restaurant food. Wonderful as some of it is, however, it’s missing a lot: dropped forks, squealing kids, ringing cellphones, the clink of toasts, “Happy Birthday.” In other words, community.

“The world as we know it is gone,” Kessler told me. My inner optimist rebels against that, but the news backs him up. All I know for sure is this: I don’t want to sit six feet away from the people I break bread with forever.

Tom Sietsema is the food critic for The Washington Post.

Design by Christian Font. Photo editing by Dudley M. Brooks and Jennifer Beeson Gregory.

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