One of the great attractions of city living is the robust and varied choices we have for dining away from home. Hanging out in a lively restaurant with friends and strangers constitutes a delightful form of entertainment and engagement with our fellow humans. The coronavirus lockdown in March brought that pleasure to a screeching halt and left a hole in our social lives that was mourned by many. But as a food writer and CityBeat’s dining critic, the gutting of restaurant culture has hit me hard.
I have loved restaurants for just about as long as I can remember, and the fancier, the better. My dear, old dad used to complain that when he took the family out for dinner, I would invariably order the most expensive thing on the menu. (I think he exaggerated, a little.)
When I went to college in Washington, D.C., I looked forward to dad’s visits in part because he would treat me to a meal at a fine French restaurant in Georgetown that was totally inaccessible on a college student’s budget. While in college, I served my time working in dining rooms around D.C., mostly as a server at everything from an all-night diner to a high-end Italian ristorante, and plenty in between.
Later, when I had a media job in New York City, I studied the restaurant guides and became so knowledgeable that NYC natives started asking me for recommendations. And in recent years, I’ve had the opportunity to review restaurants for CityBeat, an endeavor that suited me to the proverbial “t.” Cincinnati developed a vibrant dining scene that seemed to be going nowhere but up — and up some more.
Then along came the pandemic, which devastated the industry that had been flying so high.
Nobody can say with any degree of authority what the restaurant world will look like once we have a handle on COVID-19, but what we have now is quite disheartening.
About two days before the statewide closure in March of “non-essential businesses,” I dined with a friend at Pepp & Dolores in Over-the-Rhine. The place was busy but not as packed as it had been a week earlier, with people hanging around the bar and the hosts saying you’d have a two-hour wait without a reservation. Everyone seemed to be having a good time, although I think we all knew we were standing at the edge of a precipice.
Most other OTR restaurants were sparsely populated that night; Pepp was the hot spot of the early spring and didn’t have trouble filling the house. A few days later my friend and I bemoaned the lockdown but said, “We’ll always have Pepp.”
As it turns out, that’s where I went for my first restaurant experience after Gov. Mike DeWine allowed restaurants to reopen in May. Three of us ate outside at the tables newly set up on 15th Street, and it was nice to be back. And yet it didn’t feel like being back. Having 10 feet between us and the next table makes perfect “social distancing” sense but, let’s face it, that is not the restaurant experience as we knew and loved it. Not even close.
During the lockdown, I was a minimal user of carry-out, largely because the food just doesn’t taste as good after it’s been steaming in cardboard for a while. And my dining room does not exactly have the energetic vibe I thrived upon for all my years as a restaurant fan.
I did get a couple of notably delicious to-go meals from Sotto and Goose & Elder — “Chef food!” my taste buds recognized when I tucked in to the short rib pasta or the duck leg confit reheated in my microwave. Lesser but perfectly good dinners from taco joints and Indian restaurants filled in some gaps, too. But I craved — and still do — the nights in lively dining rooms of yore.
Since the tentative reopening of many but not all of my favorites, in mid- to late-May, I haven’t found much of the old magic. I’m still not comfortable with eating indoors, especially as the evidence mounts that we are most at-risk from COVID when we spend more than a few minutes indoors, unmasked, with an infected person. And, according to the CDC, about 40% of those with COVID are asymptomatic — they don’t even know they have it — although those people do appear to be half as infectious.
I’ve enjoyed a few outdoor meals, some of which, understandably, seemed like pale imitations of what the restaurant used to be capable of. The evening that seemed most like the good old days was on the large patio at Mesa Loca on Hyde Park Square. The tables were well spaced but full of happy people drinking margaritas and scarfing down cut-above Mexican fare. I had a pleasant dinner for two on the sidewalk in front of Zula, and the food was just as good as ever. It was lonesome, though, as only one other table had patrons. And it was hot and buggy.
That’s been a recent problem to keep me from trying harder to find good outdoor dining: the heat. Once that abates, we’ll have a brief period before the cold and dark sets in, and then what will we do? Even if I get less paranoid about sitting in a room with possibly COVID-bearing strangers, most of my friends don’t want to risk it.
As with so many other businesses and social endeavors during this miserable pandemic, restaurants will only be able to limp along until we have a widely available and accepted vaccine. Until then, I will be in mourning for the loss of a beloved part of my life. I grieve for the hard-working, talented chefs and cooks and mixologists and managers and servers and all the other dear people who poured their hearts into bringing fun and joy into our everyday existence.
Until we meet again, here’s to the memory of countless wonderful lunches and dinners, here and abroad, that restaurants have given us. See you on the other side.