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Taylor Lorenz On The Stress And Strangeness Of Pandemic Dining Out

A dedicated New York restaurant-goer has to explore a new city under decidedly altered circumstances.

Zagat Stories presents Restaurants 20/21, a collection of interviews with leading voices in hospitality, food, media, tech, politics, design, and more. Each story takes the turning of the calendar as an inflection point to consider what happened in 2020, or what’s likely to happen in 2021, in the world of restaurants and hospitality. See all stories here.

Taylor Lorenz is a technology reporter at the New York Times covering internet culture. She moved from New York to Los Angeles in the summer of 2020.

I went to a lot of restaurants before COVID. I was probably going out to dinner at least three or four times a week in New York, catching up with friends, going to dinner parties, things like that. The place I went to most frequently was this wine bar called Have & Meyer in Williamsburg. I was going there about once a week. It’s my favorite spot.

This other place, Cerveceria Havemeyer—also in Williamsburg—is my favorite Mexican spot, so I was always getting food there. But then COVID hit and everything was closed down for a while. You couldn’t really go out to eat. Once they opened up the outdoor dining stuff I started to go more, but definitely less than I used to.

Right after restaurants started to do outdoor dining, but before the restaurants really opened up, it was still kind of chilly out, maybe around May or June. My friends and I had walked all the way from Brooklyn Heights to Fort Greene. It was the first time I had hung out with friends. Before that, I’d been too scared to leave my apartment. I was definitely one of those people that ordered food like it was an apocalypse. I’m vegan, so I was just working my way through boxes of pasta.

When we got to Fort Greene, we saw that Baba Cool had outdoor dining. It’s a coffee shop, a really small spot, so there’s not a lot of space to sit down inside. But they have really good food and brunch. I passed by that place every day on my way to the subway, and I would stop in there sometimes and get a tea. I wouldn’t say it had been my number-one spot. But we saw the outdoor seating, and it was all socially distanced, and we were like, “Let’s just eat.”

I got like four dishes. I was so excited to eat out again, and the food tasted better than anywhere. I got avocado toast. I got some white bean hummus toast. I got a side of sautéed rosemary mushrooms or something. I got a fruit bowl. It was the best meal I’ve ever had in my life.

I feel like that made me more comfortable about eating out. I’m still nervous though. There’s still a lot of places I won’t eat out at. And I felt bad about eating out at some places. I felt like I didn’t want to go out to eat when the servers had to risk their lives to be there. It really made me upset. I did buy gift cards for different places, and I tried to support a bunch of restaurants with Venmo for the staff—still trying to give them money, but not make them feel like they had to be there to serve people. Obviously, these restaurants all deserve bailouts.

I never realized how much time I spent at restaurants and bars until it all went away. I feel like my whole life took a big hit. In the beginning of the pandemic, people were still trying to do Zoom hangouts and stuff. And then everyone kind of gave up. I ended up watching a lot of movies.

Over the summer, I moved out to Los Angeles. LA has this big outdoor dining scene. There’s just so much more space. In New York, everything was crammed into the street, so it was really stressful for me. I was really nervous. But in LA, everything is so spread out and the weather is more temperate, so more places have outdoor dining in general. And I love Mexican food, so I’m in heaven.

I love finding new spots. In terms of vegan food, it’s like a dream out here because I can eat anything. Every single restaurant has a million vegan options. Before the pandemic, every time I came to LA, I loved going out to eat. But now it’s a little bit harder. I’ve been trying to stick to places that already have outdoor dining. I haven’t gone to any really nice restaurants that focused on a more indoor dining experience.

I’ve been going to restaurants like the Holloway—they have tater tots and junk food-type stuff, which I love. And then there’s Lowboy, which has vegan burgers, and Bar Flores, which is really good Mexican.

When we were at Bar Flores the other day, the friend I was with was telling me how different it was than before the pandemic. They have a back patio, but to get there you have to walk through this whole unused big inside dining room with a bar. The lighting is really nice inside, and they have these little booths. It’s kind of sad. It’s almost like visiting a restaurant before it’s open. My friend was like, “Oh, we used to sit over here,” and “There’s always these people at the bar.” I only know it as this place with a great back patio, so I feel like I’m not totally getting the full experience of a lot of these restaurants.

I’m only going out to dinner once every two weeks, maybe once a week. I’ve been trying to explore, but I’m still really careful. I’m still nervous. I also just don’t know as many people. One part of moving to a new city is that you go out, you meet someone cool, and you’re like, “Hey, we should all get dinner.” With COVID, it’s more like people are going over to each other’s yards. There aren’t big social gatherings unless you’re a TikTok star.

I do miss the camaraderie of New York. Even though it obviously stresses me out to have everything so clustered together, it feels like a community experience in New York. I haven’t gotten the same feeling in LA. And I had neighborhood spots in New York that really resonated with me. If I had a worse dining experience, I was like, “Whatever. I know this spot. It’s great.” Out here I’m like, “Is this place always a mess, or is it just that they’re struggling?” But I’m definitely giving them a lot of leeway. I’m just grateful to be able to go out to eat. I’m not picky.

I’m really nervous about Have & Meyer back in New York. I follow a bunch of the waitstaff and the owner on Instagram. He sent me a message the other day, like, “Hey, I haven’t seen you guys in a while.” It broke my heart. I sent it to my New York friends saying, “Guys, please go there. I’m nervous about them.” They were hit really hard because it’s an Italian place and a lot of the staff was from Italy, so they didn’t get COVID benefits. I feel like every week, somebody tweets that a neighborhood institution is shutting down.

I feel so bad for restaurant workers. I’ve been tipping an insane amount. I will give an extra $20, if I have it, just for coffee. My brother works at a bar, and it’s been hard for him because they’re limiting the bar’s capacity and not serving as much food. For me to feel comfortable eating at a place, I want to make sure they’re not just protecting the guests, but protecting the health of the workers, too. If I feel like a restaurant’s not doing that, then I’m just not going to go. That’s just shitty for them.

Considering the recent restaurant ban in LA, I’m totally for cooking at home more and ordering delivery from my favorite spots instead of going out. Whereas in New York I’d discover new restaurants by eating there in person, then order delivery sometimes, in LA I’ve been discovering new restaurants through ordering delivery. There’s a bunch of great places I can’t wait to visit once this is all over.

I miss being inside a cozy spot. The reason that Have & Meyer is my favorite restaurant in New York is because it’s almost like a hallway. It’s really narrow with soft lighting and wine bottles all over. I miss places like that. I love hole-in-the-wall-type divey places, too. I think there aren’t as many of those in LA. You have more space, so there are not as many. I really miss it snowing outside and running into a cute Italian place on the Lower East Side, and just being cozy.

It’s going to take a really long time for me to mentally feel okay eating at a place like that again, even if I know it’s fine. It’s like how when you watch movies now and you see everybody crowded together, it makes you feel stressed. But now I remember every restaurant meal so much more than I did before. I’m like, “Oh, my God! Those tacos! I’ll never forget them.”