Not so long ago, this would have been the season of subjective, highly unreliable end-of-the-year listicles and “best of” assessments for overfed, bigfoot critics and gastronomes like me. It was a chance for us to pause our hectic daily rounds and sit by the proverbial crackling fire (or, in the case of this bigfoot critic, lie supine and barely breathing on the living-room couch) and ruminate about all the restaurants we’d loved (or come around to love) during the course of a dining year. It was a chance to catalogue the new dining trends — which, back in the day, used to crop up around a city like New York every few weeks or so — and to relive those memorable and luminous meals that every dedicated eater encounters one or twice or even three times during the course of a normal dining year.
This has been no normal year, of course. For those of us who care about the city’s great, buzzing, communal patchwork of bodegas, breakfast diners, Irish bars, noodle bars, dumpling houses, hash houses, pizza joints, Cubano Chinese diners, omakase tasting rooms, and haute gourmet destination palaces, this was the year when everything turned upside down, and the most unimaginable of calamities became commonplace. It was the year when new phrases like “expanded outdoor dining” and “25 percent capacity” overwhelmed the usual happy chatter about where to find the finest new cheeseburger in town, say, and it was the year when many of us — from cooks to bartenders to busboys to opinionated, fatso gastronomes like me — lost our livelihoods, either for a little while, or for good.
But hardship and calamity have a way of adjusting priorities and of illuminating all sorts of little, unexpected miracles, and that’s been true of this strange, star-crossed year, too. 2020 was the year my little family learned to love home-baked apple pies and the lost art of conversing across the dinner table about mundane events of the day — the way, I imagine, my parents and grandparents used to do. It was the year we learned to appreciate the joys of carryout feasts, and for a jaded diner like me, it was the year to reconnect in a small way with comforting rituals that used to get lost in the bustle of a normal big city day.
2020 was also a year when everything seemed to taste a little better, especially for those of us who had become used to running frantically from place to place, dulling our palates with an endless parade of impossibly rich, fanciful dishes. It was a year I rediscovered the joys of baked bread, crackly bags of Japanese rice crackers, and a humble ham-and-cheese sandwich. It was also a year of homemade soups, especially chicken soup, which we liked to make early in the year, when everything was closed down, just because of the way it suffused our little family bunker with a sense of necessary goodness and warmth.
And in the end, 2020 was also the year of some of the most memorable restaurant meals of your humble critic’s long, misspent dining life. I’m thinking of the loose, faintly runny wedge of tortilla Española I consumed at the excellent Lower East Side Spanish joint, Ernesto’s, when it reopened this fall; and the soft, milk-simmered helpings of pork shoulder that Angie Mar served her guests on linen-covered tables out on the sidewalk in front of the Beatrice Inn, in the West Village. I’m thinking of that first sip of a frosty martini served up with a twist at the old red-sauce joint Gene’s, on West 11th Street; and the marinara pies at Ribalta, just off Broadway, which on a deserted, early summer evening, just after restaurants had begun to reopen around town, reminded me of dining outdoors on one of the ancient, empty, faintly spooky side streets of Naples itself.
I’m also thinking of simpler pleasures, like soft-serve cones speckled with bits of maple sugar, which people lined up in their cars to enjoy on a hot summer’s afternoon outside a local dairy up in New Hampshire. I’m thinking of fried oysters I ordered on the Fourth of July at Bob’s Clam Hut in Kittery, Maine, which were so bountiful that they spilled from their paper boat out onto the plastic tray. I’m thinking of roadside lobster rolls, and messy cheeseburgers, and hot dogs dressed with sizzled onions that I like to order two at a time with a side order of crinkly fries, from the friendly ladies who man the excellent Wasses hot-dog stands, which this summer, like every summer, were set up in snug little roadside trailers up and down Route One, along the coast of Maine.
And I’m thinking of the Royal Grill Halal Food Cart in midtown Manhattan, which I happened on a few months back, during my rambles around town. The Vendy-winning proprietor, MD Alam, came from Bangladesh, he told me. He’d been on this corner of Sixth Avenue since 2008, and although he’d seen his share of troubles, he was hopeful that one day the customers who used to line up around the block for his delicacies would be back. When I inquired about the house speciality, it took him about five seconds to hand me a serving of spicy chicken tikka mingled with plenty of white sauce and steamy rice. It’s a $7 dish so packed with that particular alchemy of flavor, tradition, craftsmanship, hustle, and resilient entrepreneurial spirit that it tasted — it occurred to me eating my lunch among the tall, empty skyscrapers — like the great bustling city of New York itself, all in one single, delicious bite.