Let me begin by saying I recognize this is a rather controversial opinion. If you know me personally, it may be confusing. After reading this, you may very well disagree with me. And still, as things currently stand, I can say with confidence that I do not miss going to restaurants.
For the duration of the Coronavirus pandemic—and well before—restaurants have been heralded as “cultural institutions” and “community backbones”. As a society we enjoy restaurants because they offer us a brief glimpse outside of our oh-so-ordinary lives, a break from planning and preparing our own dinner or simply from cleaning dishes. We want a space to reconnect with friends and family and to get to know the people with us on our first dates. On some level, we crave the performance of it all; the theater; the experience. We want to be entertained; taken care of; together.
Just seven months of isolation and confusion has already forged deep and widespread nostalgia for bustling dining rooms of the past. Since mid-March, we have collectively mourned the loss of celebratory nights out, as well as simply the ability to gather and share a meal. My heart has been slowly picked apart by each story of an out of work line cook, or an immigrant porter who has been unable to claim unemployment benefits. I take no joy in watching the growing lists of permanent closures in cities across the country. Restaurants that have lived longer than any of us, or that were passed down through generations of family members have been forced to hand over their keys. Make no mistake—this is sad. Incredibly so.
And yet, when I hear news of Thomas Keller’s TAK Room closing its doors, or read sobering tales from Jean-Georges’ crumbling restaurant empire, I struggle to feel, well, anything at all. Every day it seems that another large restaurant and hospitality group is being forced to consolidate their dynasty and reevaluate fragile structures and orders of operation. A perhaps bitter and spiteful part of me grumbles that they had it coming, they brought it on themselves, as wealthy and powerful people are seeming to do with more frequency these days.
Friends and news outlets alike continue to ask how to support their favorite beloved dining establishments as we watch them flounder and sink in record numbers before our eyes. I find myself regurgitating the same lines of “call directly and order takeout, leave a big tip, buy a T-shirt”. It feels redundant and insufficient, but it is all that I have to offer; it is all that feels both safe and potentially helpful. On all fronts, the pandemic has decimated the restaurant industry as we once knew it, possibly beyond repair. It is now, with an undeniable twinge of guilt, that I wonder if that’s such a bad thing.
Amid larger social justice movements and intensifying political fault lines, some arguments have been made for letting the restaurant industry self-implode. Others advocate for a more sustainable future for us to work towards, encouraging the same growth and change and equality that is being called for in peaceful protests across the country and the world. The underlying common thread is that on a fundamental level, our systems are broken. As citizens we know this of our government, and yet we continue to let it fail to serve us. In restaurants, the case is not too different.
At the core of the restaurant industry and its survival thus far lies a brutal truth. Exploitative labor practices are practically written into the business model, coupled with high operating costs and thin profit margins which have made staying afloat impossible for so many. As a result, what has become of the modern American restaurant is in many ways a direct manifestation of all the things wrong in our country—rampant racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, and classism, to name a few. We are taught to believe that this is part of the industry, part of the job. We are taught to brush it aside.
An emphasis on “hospitality” lives at the root of these cultural institutions of ours, establishing and perpetuating antiquated power dynamics through the very act of ‘serving’ and being ‘served’. As a result, restaurants have acted as society’s emotional dumping ground since long before the Coronavirus existed. For decades, diners have taken for granted the ability to pawn off their own personal frustrations onto someone else; anyone else. On the second day of indoor dining in New York City, one of the industry’s most influential critics finally confronted the realities of employees who have been unwillingly placed on society’s front lines for months (and dare I argue, for years). The recent New York Times article by Pete Wells boasts a headline of “It’s Time for Diners To Ask The Servers: How Are You Doing?” . To me, this is hardly news—it’s been the time. And the answer, in short, is not great.
Sub-minimum wages and a lack of health care barely scratch the surface. Constant apologizing and accommodating is coupled with abusive and unsafe work environments, all of which has been shown to have damaging psychological effects on employees in all positions. But when going out to eat, we don’t want to think about all of this—we don’t want to be reminded of what our entertainment really consists of. To think of such things is to remove the delicate veil that has eased our collective consciousness for far too long.
With every new decision that puts restaurant workers at risk under the guise of jump-starting our economy or saving a small business, we dig our heels in further, desperately clinging to the way it used to be. What we risk now—as an industry and as a society—is emerging from this unparalleled crisis essentially unchanged.
And so no, I do not miss going to restaurants. I do not miss being served and taken care of and coddled. I do not miss dropping my fork and having an attentive employee rush to collect it and apologize reflexively for a mistake that was wholly my own. I do not miss asking someone else to bring me water and wine, all the while hoping beyond hope that their manager is treating them well and paying them fairly.
Since March, I have sat down and eaten a meal at one restaurant. It was a restaurant I used to work at, and we ate in a private garden far away from other mask-less patrons and passersby. The employees—all former coworkers—brought out food and drinks, but also sat down momentarily to check in and catch up. We wore our masks and they wore theirs, effortlessly symbolizing a base level of mutual respect. In almost every way possible, it did not feel like going to a restaurant. It felt like a nice visit with old friends. If this was how all restaurants felt, perhaps this essay never would have needed to be written.
As more restaurants are forced to pivot and adapt in order to survive, there is a unique opportunity to make this sort of lasting change. There are cafés and collectives that have formed as extensions of queer and BIPOC communities, creating and offering shared safe spaces. There are immigrants who have opened successful brick and mortar representations of their own personal histories, using food as a way to build bonds and tell a story. There are restaurants that have been seamlessly woven into the streets and neighborhoods which they occupy, establishing a mutually beneficial relationship with their surroundings. There are restaurants seeking to dismantle systems of tipped labor in an attempt to build a more equal and sustainable model for the future.
For me, the future of restaurants does not lie in the presentation of a perfectly orchestrated meal. It is not about the atmosphere or, god forbid, the service. The quality of a restaurant is in the ability to tell and share stories, and to build communities. The future consists of employees who are valued and respected and paid fairly for the work that they do. To me, a good restaurant is about good food, made by good people. These are the things that I miss.
For now, it does not matter if that food is ordered to-go and eaten in a park, out of cardboard containers. Whether I pour my own wine or bring my own tablecloth no longer has an effect on my experience. I simply do not care if I am sitting in my home or a friend’s home, as opposed to a bustling dining room. What matters in the end is the food that I eat, and who I eat it with.