Picking a Restaurant Has Become an Emotional and Social Minefield for Diner and Chef
I recently began keeping the kind of list I used to make fun of. It’s a rundown of restaurants I want/need to visit, and it resides in the Notes field on my iPhone.
I used to mock other people’s lists as foodie enthusiasm run amok. Shouldn’t choosing a restaurant be more organic and instinctual, based on mood and appetite, or–if planning far in advance–on the occasion, company, and geography? And didn’t lists like these contribute to the now-prevalent mindset that regards restaurants as disposable–to be checked out, then checked off, like movies or whatever series Netflix dropped for your bingeing pleasure this morning?
But a flurry of openings and closings, and the slow-dawning realization that I’ve been inadvertently neglecting certain friends and acquaintances, has driven me to create a catalog of must- and should-visit restaurants that, within days, expanded sufficiently that, to make it manageable, I had to divvy it up into categories.
Self-awareness demands that before going any further, I acknowledge that this undertaking, and my conflicted feelings about it, is what I refer to as an FWP, or Food Writer Problem. (And I don’t even consider myself a food writer.) It’s not really a problem–not in the grand scheme–but in my day-to-day life, both personal and professional, it looms large and omnipresent, inflicting no shortage of angst.
I can tell you the exact moment I decided to begin keeping The List:
On Friday, October 5, Ms. Toqueland and I had a dinner reservation at Frenchette. Have you been to Frenchette? If you can be in love with a restaurant, then I’m head-over-heels with it. I’m not kidding. I could write a Broadway showtune about my affection, and sing it while shuffling up and down lower Broadway. I could pen a paean to its charms and serenade it from the street like a modern-day Cyrano. I could wax poetic on its–
Ok, enough of that. You get the point.
The funny thing is that Frenchette opened in April, but I didn’t get there until August. I just couldn’t be bothered to go through the machinations required to land a table at the It restaurant of the moment, and besides, I’d made it a priority to support longtime friends and favorites to help them elude the Restaurant Reaper’s scythe.
On the night we first walked in, Frenchette swept me up in its arms. Industry friends were scattered about: spiceman Lior Lev Sercarz; Hong Thaimee and Matt Bruck … even Ms. Toqueland’s boss Dick Robinson, CEO of Scholastic. Jorge Riera, the wine maestro I’d become so fond of at Wildair, strode the floor, wielding large-format bottles of natural wine like six-shooters. Chef Riad Nasr, whom I’d somehow never met before, stepped away from the pass to visit with me for a good ten minutes. I couldn’t wait to go back, and being in the industry, or at least my curious adjunct to it, was able to snag a table more or less when I wanted one.
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Now here’s the rub: Just two address-digits south of Frenchette sits Bâtard, the much-lauded restaurant by John Winterman, Drew Nieporent, and Chef Markus Glocker, in the storied former home of Drew’s breakout 1980s hit Montrachet and of Corton, the too-small set for his ill-fated opera with Paul Liebrandt. I don’t really know Markus, but I’ve known Drew for 20 years, and John and I had a passing acquaintance and–I think–mutual professional admiration. I’d had a spontaneous bite at the bar after a movie once and attended a collaborative Portuguese dinner there, but had never been in for a proper meal. There was no real reason other than that there are a lot of restaurants in this and any big city, and I wasn’t approaching my dining with intentionality. Nevertheless, for me, my failure to dine there produced awkwardness and a twinge of guilt on every visit.
On that fateful evening in October, our friends got hung up with a canine crisis, so we dropped into Bâtard for a drink while we waited for them to finish their ordeal at the veterinary clinic. John greeted us. Markus, newly installed at Augustine and toggling back and forth between the restaurants, swung by to say hello. Both asked me if we’d been in for dinner yet. “No,” I answered sheepishly. Both surmised, correctly, that we must be headed to Frenchette. They couldn’t have been more gracious, but I felt like a jerk.
And so began The List. It’s a running roster of places I’ve been meaning to visit or revisit. Some examples: I’ve known John Fraser for years, but haven’t been to any of his post-Dovetail joints, and I met and really liked JJ Johnson earlier this year, but haven’t been to Henry at Life Hotel since he took the reins. I’ve been to Contra a few times, but not since my pal Claire Welle joined the kitchen. Then there are places where I don’t know anybody personally, but are of obvious professional interest: Günter Seger, King, and Atomix, to name just three.
I had meant to get to Delaware + Hudson, former pastry chef Patti Jackson’s Williamsburg restaurant, in part because Patti and I had texted back and forth about her coming on my podcast. But before I got there, she announced she was closing it in November, although it remains open as a holiday bar and brunch spot through the end of the year.
I could go on.
One Wednesday afternoon, a few weeks after I started keeping The List, Ms. Toqueland texted me: “Is this right? We have no plans Saturday night??? Let’s have a real date!” I consulted The List and there at the top was Bâtard. The system worked! I made a reservation.
It was a fabulous meal, one of the best we’ve had all year. I’ll long remember the citrus-cured hamachi, pork schnitzel, and the superlative cheese service that John proudly oversees and tends to himself. Messrs. Winterman and Glocker forgave me my delinquency, and Markus posted a flattering story on his Instagram feed, declaring it “an honor” to have had me in.
That’s a happy ending for us all, and a rousing endorsement of The List, right?
Well, yes … and no.
Our decision, like all decisions, came at a cost. (That’s why they’re called decisions.) The next night, the Brooklyn restaurant Prime Meats served its last dinner. I really wanted to get back there one last time, since we had lived around the corner for four years and spent countless breakfasts, lunches, and dinners there. But the holiday season was already getting the best of me and I didn’t make it, even though it was on The List. I’m too close to Jimmy Bradley to not have been to The Red Cat, which is scheduled to shutter on December 23, recently, and am going back again tonight, but I have no idea how or when I’ll make it to Battersby, whose cookbook I coauthored, and which just announced its closing on December 31st. (The team even wrote me a personal note to share the news, since I’d helped “give words”–their charming phrase–to the enterprise.) It’s also become clear that I won’t make my first visit to Misi until 2019, even though I publicly declared Missy Robbins’ Lilia my favorite restaurant of 2017. Then there are the places–this is a new one for me, mostly owing to my podcast–run by chefs I’ve never met who have reached out to tell me how much it would mean to them if I came in, which is beyond flattering … and also beyond the bursting seams of my schedule. And prioritizing all of these places means neglecting friends and favorites I want to support with my limited time and dollars: Barbuto, Empellon, Porter House Bar and Grill, Il Buco Alimentari e Vineria, Jonathan Benno’s new joints, Upland… and–of course, mon chéri Frenchette. That list goes on and on as well.
I’ve heard directly from the mouths of too many chefs how much it stings when guests who purport to love what they do don’t support them. It’s especially tough, I’m told, when they announce they’re closing, and customers who haven’t darkened their door in months, if not years, suddenly reappear to rekindle their affair for one more golden evening. Every restaurateur who’s endured that will tell you that if they did the business they did in their final weeks all year long, they’d have been able to tough it out. That’s a hell of a thing for a passionate diner to know.
If I didn’t have a family (another way of saying “if I had more time”), or if I had more disposable income, I’d do more than support a greater range of restaurants: I’d create some kind of website or app through which those of us who want to keep as many worthy joints as possible afloat would be able to see how many people are going to a given restaurant on a given night, so we could opt for those who might be neglected. That’s probably a radical and myopic notion of how to pick a restaurant, which for most people is fundamentally a selfish act, as it should be. But in these increasingly competitive times, where restaurants are endangered species, we all are voting with our patronage, whether we recognize and accept that burden or not.
P.S. As subscribers know, I’ve been away from this site for months, mostly owing to some all-consuming professional opportunities (a good thing), but my friend Bob Grimes has been after me to get back to it. I might not have returned this calendar year were it not for him … thanks, Bob!