The last restaurant experience I had unfraught was at Seattle’s lovely Lark, where my friends Adam and Stuart and I slid into a deep blue velvet booth and drank icy cold martinis and ate little local oysters followed by big fancy hamburgers and one dessert with three spoons. They are — they were — regulars there, being fans of those particular big fancy hamburgers, so the server remembered them, and they, she; everyone chatted easily. Among ourselves, we talked of many things, some funny and some less so. I needed some advice, and they are wise, and they obliged, and they told me exactly what I wanted to hear. Eventually, we toddled off into the night, promising to do it again very soon. Too much time had passed, we said, and hugged and went off to our respective beds.
One of the things we did not discuss was a global pandemic, as that unthinkable had yet to happen. The luxury! Of course, we felt lucky — only the entitled can eat a $18 hamburger ferried out to a snowy white tablecloth beneath a distant ceilingful of twinkling lights without acknowledging their vast privilege — but we had no idea.
As the coronavirus-induced nonessential-commerce shutdown stretches into its sixth week, Gov. Jay Inslee has indicated he’ll be extending the Washington state stay-home order yet again on the May 4 deadline, which seems only judicious. But — again acknowledging the enormous privilege inherent in saying such a thing as so many larger problems are afoot — I miss restaurants so, so much. Confined as we are, the lack of the gathering places where we could meet and eat and talk and laugh, enjoying not just each others’ company but good food and drink and a sense of community, a sense of a world we meaningfully inhabit actually together … that lack grows more acute.
I’d give my eyeteeth to go to Lark with Adam and Stuart tonight (proverbially, not actually, as that would clearly hamper the eating). But I also miss meeting my friend Leslie on the way home from work — god, I miss being on the way home from work — at Dino’s to sit at the far end of the long, dim bar, eating the thick square pizza that changed my mind about thick square pizza and drinking cans of Rainier. I miss the perfect Frenchiness of Le Pichet, where on a cold afternoon before all of this started I ate an enormous molten bowlful of onion soup and felt maximally happy, where now I’d be feeling the same eating Eastern Washington asparagus dressed in some simple but marvelous way.
I started a list of the places I especially miss, and looking at it and adding to it is like pressing on a bruise, painful but then maybe hard to stop: By Tae, Il Nido, Paju, Le Caviste, Ba Bar, La Dive, Stateside, Little Neon Taco … it goes on and on. A restaurant can make one feel cared for in a particular way: food as love, if that’s not too sentimental to say. Seattle’s best do it in all kinds of ways, comforting or thrilling, cozy or bustling, with even the most formal feeling friendly and even the most modest still full of romance. Amid the usual din at red-sauce, vinyl-tablecloth favorite Machiavelli one night, I watched someone at a two-top get down on bended knee to open a telltale velvet box; the delight, the embrace, the kiss, and the entire restaurant burst into raucous applause. It wasn’t the first time that’s happened there, the server told me — but will it happen again?
I like cooking, but I’m a food writer and restaurant-turned-takeout critic, definitely not a chef. How a person can cook so slowly yet still manage dumb mistakes like overcooking soft-boiled eggs is a mystery to me, which is weird because I’m that person. From an exquisite Canlis prix fixe to superdelicious Dacha Diner, all respect to those who have, over and over, done in the kitchen what us mere mortals are unlikely to ever do. Furthermore, as a person with a bad memory who is incompetent at carrying things and might not hold up well at being endlessly pleasant to everyone and also frequently feels tired, it’s not an overstatement to say I’m pretty much in awe of servers. And all the people behind the scenes do their all-too-unsung and all-too-often-underpaid parts to bring restaurants to us — washing the dishes and delivering the linens and making the cheeses and picking the fruit. Or at least they used to.
It’s been my extreme good fortune not just to love restaurants but also to review them, first at a Seattle alternative weekly, then — and now, sort of — at The Seattle Times. To try to tell the stories of how they come together — whose hearts and minds make them tick, as well as critiquing what’s on the plate — has always felt very important, and I’ve witnessed an independent restaurant community here full of support instead of selfishness, collaboration instead of competition. No one knows what will happen now — only that it does not look good by any means. A new James Beard Foundation survey indicates that only one in five restaurant owners think they can keep their businesses viable until operations resume whenever the coronavirus crisis somehow ends. Owners report having laid off 91% of hourly workers and nearly 70% of salaried ones.
The Beard Foundation and others have established grants to help those in the industry, but a piecemeal private-sector approach is extremely unlikely to be enough. Now is the time to rethink: How did Seattle rents and expenses get so high that our independent restaurants, not to mention their workers, were already beginning to be forced out? How can resources be reallocated more fairly, from the fieldworker on up? Shouldn’t health care be there for everybody, all the time? How do we truly support and sustain the people and the things that we don’t realize we’ll miss, terribly, until they’re gone?
Lark’s burger is available to-go in limited quantities on Thursdays from 11 a.m.-2 p.m. — order ahead at exploretock.com/lark. And many of the other restaurants mentioned above, plus more all around town, are open for takeout — here’s our list. It’s not the same, but it is a good way to help them try to stay afloat.