Eating Out in NYC (Literally)

Six weeks ago I walked past this VIP outdoor seating at a Thai place I used to meet beau at sometimes. No longer offering indoor dining due to the pandemic, they had set up a single table on the sidewalk. The velvety red rope stood in contrast to the nearby stack of carrots and parked school buses across the street.

New York has been very creative with its outdoor dining. To make up for the fact that customers are seated on sidewalks next to traffic, they have enclosed the small areas in festive colored walls, plants, and decorations.

Since mid-March, I have only had one meal at a restaurant with table service in New York City. One September weekend, I met up with a friend and her boyfriend at a Thai place in midtown. The tables, rather than being placed on the sidewalk, were on the road, separated from the restaurant facade by a bike lane. When we arrived, the server looked left and right, then led us across the bike lane to our table. I was tickled by this. There was even a sign warning customers to be aware of passing bikes.

Luckily, 9th Avenue is actually pretty quiet traffic-wise.

As we waited for our dinner to be served, my friend pointed out “The Edge,” a new viewpoint at the top of a skyscraper nearby. They had just come from there before meeting me. Because she is a doctor, she had received a free ticket during that period when many businesses were offering perks and discounts to first-responders.

At one point, I crossed the bike lane to enter the restaurant to go to the bathroom. As I stepped through the door, an employee held a temperature gun to my head, which surprised me since he didn’t audibly say anything before doing so.

After dinner, we donned our masks and walked to the Hudson River, something I have done many times in previous summers but was the first (and last) time this season.

Near the river, people were lounging on the grass and sitting at the chairs and tables. I saw one woman lovingly brushing her dog and another two people trying to get their dogs to pose for pictures. I wondered whether the months of quarantine had made dogs’ importance loom all the more large in people’s lives, or whether I had forgotten what New York City pet owners are like. Given the number of pet strollers in Manhattan (not many, but more than you might think), it was probably a bit of both.

Over the Moon

Last week I took myself to a French restaurant for dessert during my lunch break to celebrate my lunar birthday. I had only been there twice.

The first was for lunch with my boss over a year ago, and while I don’t remember what I ate, the warm madeleines she and I shared were divine.

The second was around this time last year. I went for dessert with the person I was dating at the time to celebrate my birthday. We ordered some kind of chocolate decadence to share, and it was so good that when we were done, he asked me, “Should we get a second one?” in a way that said, “We should get a second one.” So we did and got to experience it all over again.

It crossed my mind that going there this year might make me sad since we’re no longer together, but the dessert was tempting enough, and I’m one to want to make new experiences in old places. I went in, glanced at the little table where we had sat, and was glad to be seated in another spot, a cozy booth with a view of the room. People around me sat in pairs or groups, eating and chatting.

The server came around and asked “Sparkling or still?” Of course, it was the same server we had had almost one year ago. I responded, “Still,” hoping that it would be tap water (it was).

One thing had changed since last year—the menu. It’s just as well that the chocolate dessert was not there. I ordered the lemon tart, which had preserved lemon chunks and a shock of black and white sesame seeds. It was delectable.

I found I was able to sit there and look around the restaurant and remember being there before and wholly savor being there at that moment. Alternating between a bite of the tart lemon tart and the warm decaf coffee in a tasse whose handle was too tiny to fit a finger through, I wondered if they purposely chose those cups so you had to use both hands, thereby preventing you from eating with one hand and drinking with the other and effectively slowing down the process. In any case, it surely extended mine, as I had a taste of lemony goodness and then had to put down my fork to pick up the cup. I did this many, many times, and I was glad I had come.

bday

Italian with Français

This winter I had lunch with a new French friend (my dad met her during a plane ride last fall) and her husband at Il Cantinori during Restaurant Week, a period that, contrary to its name, takes place over two weeks. Oodles of pricey restaurants offer prix fixe menus, making it more affordable for those who wouldn’t usually dine there. Restaurants of all cuisines offer several choices of appetizer, entrée, and dessert. (After several years of eating in France, I still sometimes confuse what an ‘entrée’ is.)

She and her husband had been to New York many times on vacation, but this was their first time living in this region, and they were about a month into their three-month stay.

Highlights of our lunch:

– Telling them that Carrie Bradshaw had her 30th birthday dinner there. You feel for her in that scene. She sits at a large table, and one by one her friends call the restaurant (there were no cell phones) and say they’re running late or ran into some problem preventing them from getting there, but they cheerily wish her a happy birthday.

– Watching the Italian waiter’s face when my friend asked what a cannoli was (and she is of Italian descent). Are they less common in France? Do I only know them because there were so many Italian Americans where I grew up?

– She and her husband lamenting that they couldn’t watch Jimmy Kimmel live like the rest of Americans because they don’t have a TV. I explained that it’s taped in the afternoon, so no one but the studio audience is watching it live, and also that many Americans, at least in the city, don’t have TVs and so watch it online anyway. They were surprised. Also, did you know Kimmel is popular in France? Several French people have mentioned him to me; I would have thought Stephen Colbert or Jimmy Fallon would be the most well-known American talk show hosts abroad.

– She said a lot of people react when they hear they have foreign accents, or don’t understand what she and husband are saying, which I found weird since everyone has an accent here. Plus, her English is really good. I thought all of us in New York were used to hearing accents all the time. However, she also said the people were friendly and interested in where they came from.

– In her experience, people are very nice—a stranger took initiative to help them when they were confused on the bus in New Jersey, for example.

– She and their daughter visited Santa Claus in December (he lives in Finland, apparently). She asked if I had received gifts, and when I said yes, she leaned over and said she knew that because she had reminded him to deliver them to me.

When I spend time with newcomers in my region, it feels like I’m still traveling.