Forget about trendy sidewalk dining, cocktails alfresco, and all the other beloved tropes of the outdoor dining craze. During this strange tail-end, twilight era of the Great Pandemic, it’s indoor dining that’s all the rage. If you don’t believe me, walk the streets of Fort Greene or the West Village, where you’ll see raucous dining rooms and people lining up to get into restaurants that just a few months back they would have paid good money to avoid. Scroll your social-media feeds and you’ll see the newly vaxxed hordes tweeting out triumphant indoor meals (“Had dinner at Keens … New York is back, baby!”) and posting images of toasts and maskless diners who appear to have been beamed in from a more carefree time.
“Save the outside seats for the unvaccinated, Platty!” cried one of my bon vivant friends when I called to ask whether he felt it was safe to go back inside. The city’s great dining rooms were just as magical as I remembered them, he said, and he’d be happy to host me at his old hangouts, like Le Bernardin, when I felt like returning to the real world. Others were more wary, and why not? According to the COVID dashboards and pandemic heat maps that we’ve been addictively clicking for the last year, the risk of disease around the city remains “very high.” There were all sorts of grim variants afoot, along with stories about the newly vaxxed getting sick, and with the cold spring weather finally warming, dining out under the stars was beginning to seem attractive again.
Aside from restaurant workers themselves, few segments of the dining population have been as traumatized or prone to COVID PTSD as professional eaters, of course. Many of my colleagues have gotten sick. Many more have spent long months in the trenches, enduring frozen dinners in tattered dining yurts and nervously consulting studies of airflow patterns in Guangzhou restaurants, while the partygoers currently flooding into Balthazar were enjoying their outdoor dining privileges in the Hamptons. But having recently returned from the original Wild West of indoor dining, southern Florida, a place where it’s difficult to know who’s crazier, the unmasked locals or the masked New Yorkers creeping around with their bottles of hand sanitizer, it seemed to me that it was time to dip a proverbial toe back into the old waters.
Which is how I found myself, fully masked and vaxxed, sitting on a rainy afternoon by the open door at the very good Murray Hill restaurant Café China. It was too miserable and cold to sit outside, so my friend had booked a table inside. He was a regular there and eager to get on with his pre-pandemic life, so he merrily called for his usual order of luncheon dumplings. I peered out the open door feeling, it later occurred to me, like a nervous flier about to take off for the first time in a long while. This inaugural flight went fine for a bit, although our table was buffeted by the occasional gust of wind coming through the open door, and it wasn’t long before my mask was dribbled with soy sauce and pork juice as I attempted to safely jam a steady stream of excellent dumplings down my throat.
Halfway through this first slightly neurotic meal, however, a party of out-of-towners arrived in the dining room, presumably from the airport or the train station, pulling their loudly clattering roller bags behind them. The appearance of actual tourists in our midst was another hopeful sign for the future, of course, but when they ripped off their flimsy paper masks and began to loudly spread whatever imaginary mutant strain they’d brought with them from South Dakota or Brazil, even my formerly unflappable host, who was dressed as if for an old-fashioned pre-COVID business lunch in a full suit and tie, took note. “Check, please!” he cried through his hastily raised mask, and when we were safely out on the rainy street, he muttered, “We can eat outdoors next time if you like.”
But like everything else in this slowly evolving new world, we’re all waking from our pandemic hibernations at our own pace, of course. And so wandering around Soho the other morning during the course of my culinary rounds, I stopped by Balthazar — which, after a long, dark year, is open at last — for that most underrated of all restaurant meals, the weekday breakfast. It was windy and cold outside, so I loomed at the entrance for a while, and after waiting for a few hesitant minutes and having my temperature checked, I was led to one of the great curving burgundy-colored banquettes at the back of the room.
The old glittering space was less than half full on a weekday morning. Plexiglass partitions had been installed between the tables, and the wait staff drifted to and fro, looking like surgeon’s attendants with their masks, spotless aprons, and snapping white rubber gloves. In the distance, there were people enjoying their breakfast without masks on, and at the table next to mine, a woman was sketching something on a large pad while she ate her breakfast under a vase filled with a spray of cherry blossoms. I ordered my morning coffee, dutifully lifting my mask up and down between sips, but when my eggs and bacon arrived, I took my mask off and put it on the table. Then I ate my breakfast in happy silence for the next half-hour or so, enjoying those familiar comforts of the dining room — the clattering of dishes, the rising murmur of conversation, the promise of a good meal — which I half-remembered, from a time that seemed like long ago, and had almost forgotten.