Remember sitting down at a restaurant and unwrapping silver utensils folded elegantly in a white cloth napkin? Yeah, me neither.
Since March 22 when the stay-at-home order all but shut down New York City and state – following similar orders in Washington state and California – restaurants and bars were shut down and later open only for takeout or delivery.
New York City without restaurants is – or was — unfathomable. When I moved here from California, the main reason outside of career ambitions was the food.
The best restaurants in the country are here, the best chefs, the most international cuisines.
I would eat like a queen at Pasha, an old favorite Turkish restaurant on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. I would hop on the F train from Brooklyn through Manhattan to Queens for delicious Indian curries at Jackson Diner.
I’d head up to Arthur Avenue in the Bronx and shop at Italian markets and stuff myself on cannoli from Marrone and celebrate at bacchanalian Italian feasts at Puglia, an century-old establishment in Little Italy where resident crooner, Jorge Buccio, would lead cheerful diners in “The Napkin Song.”
Then there’s all the fine dining: Le Bernardin remains my No. 1 favorite New York City restaurant and securing reservations there for myself, friends and colleagues brought such a sense of victory, I can barely describe it. Think of it as winning a gold medal, but you know, with an email confirmation from Resy.
So here we are, one week after restaurants in New York City reopened at 25% capacity. I’ve been eating outdoors since July – not often – but enough to keep my restaurant-related madness in check. But now it was time to go back to some semblance of reality.
Return to a classic
Since I couldn’t get Le Bernardin reservations (remember I bragged about that a minute ago?) I went with another favorite, Keens Steakhouse, located just north of Herald Square in midtown Manhattan.
The first time I went to Keens, I thought I’d gone to heaven. It’s everything you want an old New York steakhouse to be. Cavernous, dark wood, a working fireplace in the pub room just off the downstairs bar. Excellent service, a loud din that makes one feel like you are in the center of the universe.
Oh, and the food is just perfection. The steaks – they’re most famous for their mutton chop – are always the best cuts and always cooked to perfection. Other favorites: The oysters, classic sides such as creamed spinach and a wicked creme brulé for dessert.
So here we are, almost seven months into a global pandemic, and I’m in an Uber on Sixth Avenue, looking at the window at all the masked people walking this way and that (thank you for wearing your masks, New Yorkers!)
I get out of the car to see Keens’ outdoor setup, which if you’ve ever been on a block in midtown, you would be hard-pressed to believe there could be anything truly elegant, and least of all pleasant, about eating on the street next to the city’s most recent Taco Bell Cantina (where you can order booze with your gordita, baby).
But the tent and the tables do feel like a tiny oasis, at least from my vantage point of the sidewalk. There were about three tables that had diners. When I checked in at the outside podium, a nice woman took my temperature and directed me upstairs to the table.
Situated by a window, and well over six feet away from any other, our table was like a little throne. And once I sat down with my dining partner, both of us masked, I started trying to unwrap the silverware.
I don’t know how to express how odd and weird it was. It was like my hands didn’t know what to do, how to unroll, the knives falling out on the table, the napkin still held the forks when I put it in my lap. We were hysterical. I forgot how to navigate a place setting!
But soon our waiter arrived, pointed to the touchless menu bar code and took our drink order. We kept our masks on whenever a server or any staff came by the table to refill our water or clear a plate. This was weird and hard to remember to do.
I put my mask in my lap and couldn’t find it when I spied someone coming toward us, so I just clapped my hand over my mouth and mumbled an apology. My dining partner wisely had a mask that hung from her neck, so she came off like an old pro while I acted as if I was called up from the minors and had the yips.
They split our salad and our steak for us, so we didn’t have to interact with each other’s food. We were mindful of each other, and of the other patrons. I spied only four other tables with diners. The benefits of such a large, multiroom space cannot be overstated. Other snugger restaurants must have a much more difficult time managing 25% when that means, perhaps, only three tables.
During dessert, the relative normality and the unbridled joy of the experience washed over us. We’d done it! We’re back!
It doesn’t look like it used to, but dining indoors at a restaurant in New York City is still pretty fabulous. I felt safe and well looked after, and I had the exact meal and experience that I’ve been aching to have since March.
I’m coming for you next, Le Bernardin.