In a stay-at-home summer, it’s easy to run out of topics during social Zooming. So, I offer you a prompt, inspired by the June 17th New York Times “Food” section, in which a baker’s half-dozen of writers share memories of “restaurant magic.” Sure, we can still get takeout, and perhaps eat nervously out-of-doors, but these writers remind us that restaurant dining can be so much “More than a Meal.”
For example, I can summon exactly the velvety din of the West end of the Marais district of Paris, ten years ago, in those halcyon days when Americans were tolerated abroad. Our family of four stepped off a cobblestone alleyway and squeezed into a sliver of a shop, with a mustard-yellow front and tiny window panes of wavy glass. Inside, small tables jumbled together, diners clanking elbows and bumping chair legs as they leaned over the wine-perfumed fondue pots and steam-punky table-top raclette grills. While the bistro was neighborhood-casual, our waiter projected Michelin-star formality. Our shy middle-schooler, in a moment of daring, decided to practice her first-year French while ordering dessert: “ehm … S’il vous plait, je m’appelle gateau au chocolat.” I thought I saw the waiter’s mustache twitch, but he nodded, gravely: “Bon choix!” he praised her, before turning with a smile. As he left the table, our daughter clapped her hand over her mouth, realizing that she’d just told him earnestly, “If you please, my name is chocolate cake.” The waiter preserved her dignity, delivered the richly layered slice, and she dug in with joie de vivre. The cake mattered so much less than the warmth of the room that made possible her bravery and his benevolence. Magique.
Restaurants are one of those cultural “third spaces,” somehow both public and private, a multi-sensory theater that nourishes bodies and spirits. They are places for celebration, risk-taking, intimacy, and creature comforts. No wonder we miss their magic.
I remember another meal, for a friend’s birthday, at the now-closed South Bend restaurant, Tapastrie. We spent hours on a starlit night, passing small dishes designed to share, exclaiming over the sauce-ribboned patatas bravas, blistered peppers, glistening albondigas, and lemon-balsamic sautéed spinach. We nibbled and clinked glasses and wove stories together until I thought we were ready to reach for our coats. But my extravagance-loving spouse, eager to punctuate the celebration, waved a hand grandly over the dessert menu and announced to the server, “We’ll have one of everything!” The rest of us groaned in mock horror and stretched to make room in our waistbands as a half-dozen eye-popping creme brûlée and baklava and sorbets appeared. The night stretched another hour, our spoons dancing between dishes in an improvised choreography of delight.
I think of another cherished evening this past winter at Ivan Raman, on the shabby-chic Lower East Side of New York City. Led by our adult children, who know how to find a good noodle, we edged sideways through the clouds of sea-scented steam rising from tables. We bumped hipster shoulders all the way to the covered back patio — in January! — where the only open table sat. We were offered heavy blankets, and, warmed by wool and exclamations about a day that included Rockefeller Center skaters and Salvador Dali masterpieces, we leaned into our appetizer, a cumulonimbus of crispy cauliflower in curry koi butter and pickled ginger, a umami bomb we forked into our laughing mouths so fast our utensils clanked like toy swords.
Of course, your memories of restaurant magic might come from behind the scenes, where we know that enchanting evenings are made of sweat, fire, flashing knifes, and grace under pressure. During my own restaurant kitchen days, when my biceps bulged from slamming pots over flames, I loved shouting the incantation that turns labor into plated luxury:“Order up!” Or maybe yours are front-of-house memories of whirling spice-scented dishes to lay before patrons, who clap their hands in gratitude. (I can’t be the only one.) I miss that third-space magic, too.
If you are as hungry as I am for these more-than-a-meal moments, it might be time to re-watch films like Big Night, or Mostly Martha. Better yet, please serve up a story from your own favorite restaurant memories. My empty plate — and those of your beloveds — awaits.
Music: "Via Con Me" by Paolo Conte