“What do you miss?” my friend Gail asked. She was querying everyone she knew about the ordinary, everyday things that the pandemic had taken away, and she had accumulated quite a list of longings: hugs, facials, spin classes, church choirs, happy hours, movie theaters, dancing to live music, picking out produce, full football stadiums, sending the kids to school, privacy. “I miss restaurants,” I answered instantly. Of course I do. Going to restaurants has been my profession and passion for more than four decades, and I’m aghast at the devastation that COVID-19 has visited upon the dining industry. My reveries are often overcome by the remembrance of tastes past: The scarlet-tinged chunks of lobster in wild mushroom risotto at Bliss, in San Antonio. The caramelized cauliflower florets with their crown of shimmering pink bonito flakes at Roost, in Houston. The succulent, near-primitive pig’s head carnitas at CBD Provisions, in Dallas.
It’s not that these glorious bites have ceased to exist—the places mentioned above are blessedly still there—or that I have stopped eating from restaurants. On the contrary: my recycling bin in Austin is overflowing with to-go containers. I’ve spent pleasant evenings on restaurant patios, and I’ve even eaten inside when guests were few and far between. But my age has made me very cautious, so my frequent treks out of town to visit half a dozen new restaurants over a long weekend are a thing of the past, at least for now. My monthly column has been on hiatus, as was the Dining Guide, which is written by some twenty reviewers across the state. The guide returned in November with to-go reviews only, but I’m still pondering the form my column should take going forward.
In October, I traveled for the first time since March and rented an Airbnb in San Antonio for the express purpose of doing takeout meals in another city. Have you ever tried to sample a multicourse dinner, with sides and desserts, all by yourself in a one-room space? I would nibble the first dish, scribble tasting notes, push that dish aside, and reach for the next. Nibble, scribble, repeat. The word “robotic” comes to mind. Yes, there can be fabulous flavors even when the food comes in a box, but everything else is absent: the swirl and bustle of the crowd, the sense of occasion, and especially the pleasure of sharing food with other happy, laughing people.
Which brings me to the thing I miss most: my merry band of dining companions. Tacked to my bulletin board is a handful of Word document printouts labeled “Eaters,” one for each of the five major cities in Texas. Every dog-eared page holds anywhere from a handful to more than two dozen names. Most are my old friends; some are their old friends; all have been deputized for dining duty. In happier times I would email a few of them every couple of months: “Hey! I’m headed your way, and I’d love to see you! What are you doing Thursday night?” But I haven’t done that since spring. And, as it turns out, my friends are as wary as I am. “Don’t take this the wrong way,” one told me just before I canceled my March travel plans, “but right now we don’t want to eat with you.” My feelings weren’t hurt. I understood. But I miss them, and I miss just driving around, seeing what’s new, checking out the places I’ve been reading about, wondering about vacancies, spotting new construction. I miss being in the know.
Is there anything that I don’t miss about the restaurant scene? Definitely. I don’t miss the lines and the $10-plus valet parking in the big cities and the incapacitating noise at jam-packed places, followed by knotted neck muscles at the end of the evening. I don’t miss staying up till midnight typing notes in a lonely hotel room. I don’t miss dieting for days after one of those crazy splurges. But I am sad that my slightly madcap life as a restaurant critic has been sidelined. Aside from my friends and the food, I yearn for the theatricality and escape of it all, of being cared for by expert servers and sommeliers, of being transported to a different world—a glittering modern Spanish tapas bar via MAD, in Houston; a minuscule Tokyo ramen shop via Salaryman, in Dallas; a lusty German biergarten via any number of stein-friendly places in the Hill Country. And, of course, I long for real global travel; I’m still pining for the Oaxaca culinary trip I had planned to take in May.
So what have I been doing this year in lieu of writing restaurant reviews? I’ve been covering the industry’s response to the pandemic and its fight for survival, talking to chefs who are on the front lines to not only feed their communities but also get much-needed help from Congress. These interviews have opened my eyes to the scope of the crisis. The food service industry is vast—before the pandemic, it employed more than 15 million people nationwide, according to the National Restaurant Association. And previously it was doing very well, with sales reaching a record high last year. Now it’s under siege. The industry is on track to lose $240 billion this year. The group estimates an astounding 100,000 restaurants will have closed across the country by the end of 2020. Here in Texas the picture is equally bleak. Ultimately, 30 percent of the state’s restaurants might disappear if government support is not received soon, according to the Texas Restaurant Association.
If the numbers are astonishing, it wasn’t until I talked to someone who had been in the trenches that I grasped the full human toll. Back in May, I called DeeAnne Bullard, one of the three owners of Fricano’s Deli, a sandwich shop that had been a fixture near the University of Texas at Austin for fourteen years. After UT canceled summer classes, Fricano’s closed for good. As we talked, Bullard looked at her calendar, on which she had written daily notes chronicling the restaurant’s death spiral. There was a pause, then she drew her breath in sharply and said, “Oh! There is so much suffering here!” It’s not just owners, chefs, and investors who have their dreams crushed and their bank accounts drained when a restaurant closes, of course. It’s also the employees (Fricano’s had sixteen)—the ones who made the salads, cleared the tables, washed the dishes, and stayed late to sanitize surfaces so they would be squeaky-clean the next day. They are out of work, and their prospects for similar employment are dismal at best right now.
And that leads me to another thing I miss: blissful ignorance. Before this all happened, I seldom thought about how the restaurant industry actually works. I had enough to do just eating the food and writing the review. Now I know all too well that there is a multitrillion-dollar cat’s cradle of connectivity that joins restaurants to farms, ranches, dairies, orchards, florists, airlines, hotels, conventions, fairs, and festivals. You undo one loop of the string, and the supply chain collapses in a heap on the floor. In March, a few days after dining rooms were shut down across the state, I pulled into the parking lot of my local Tacodeli and found a big Hardie’s Fresh Foods truck selling $20 boxes of tomatoes, potatoes, and other produce to customers and passersby. “What’s going on?” I asked the driver. “Restaurants aren’t buying,” he said, adding, “Need anything?” Not long after that, a brisket shortage swept Texas when the meatpacking industry was hit by COVID-19. Millions of chickens had to be euthanized nationwide because of worker shortages. All of this was a valuable reminder that food supply chains are as critical to the nation as the electrical grid and water supply—and just as vulnerable.
MY Go-To TO-GO
What’s been my regular spot for takeout during the pandemic? That’s easy: Tacodeli, which has a location a mile from my house. Favorite orders: migas and coffee for breakfast; shrimp salad with guacamole for dinner.
At the oddest times these days, I find myself circling back to Gail’s question. Yes, I miss restaurants. My sense of loss is especially acute because they have given me so much pleasure over the years and been so central to my identity. I wish they were all open and crowded with people and succeeding beyond their wildest dreams. But it’s more than just that. I miss walking in without a care in the world, of sitting down to dinner without fiddling with a mask, freezing at the sound of a nearby cough, or worrying that my server is putting herself at risk because she needs the paycheck. I miss my blissful ignorance.
One day, all this will pass, but until that time comes, we’ll just have to hang in there. The holiday season is about to be upon us, so let me make a wish for everyone—owners, chefs, servers, bussers, farmers, ranchers, grape pickers, winemakers, brewers, and distillers—in the restaurant industry’s extended family: May Santa bring us all good fortune, a flattened curve, and a superlative vaccine as soon as humanly possible. I want my old life back, and I’m sure everyone else does too.
This article originally appeared in the December 2020 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Party of None.” Subscribe today.