Let me tell you about the best restaurant I’ve been to lately…
Nestled in a corner of Parkdale, the room is pale green with a wall covered in black and white photos of (mostly weird) celebrities. The table is large and round, glossy black with red and orange accessories. Seating is straight-backed parsons chairs; super-comfortable with lots of back support, and covered in slipcovers that evoke a mid-century lounge. The lighting is bright but not glaring, and nobody EVER turns down the lights to near-darkness just as you’ve started to read the menu. The soundtrack on the stereo is whatever you want it to be, but mostly leans to bebop jazz or Klezmer music at brunch. Nobody, diners or staff, wears perfume, cologne, or bad aftershave. Service can be a bit haphazard, but is warm and charming, and nobody ever corrects you when you mispronounce the name of the wine, or uses their pinky finger to point out the various elements of a dish while you sit impatiently waiting for them to shut up and go away so you can eat already. The linens are well-washed cotton napkins, not old tea towels that shed all over your outfit. The menu changes daily, and ranges from super-simple to multi-course high end fare, offered at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Brunch is served on weekends. There’s only one table so your meal is never interrupted by other guests, and there’s no worry about social distancing.
Welcome to my dining room, which I’ve discovered that I prefer over pretty much any restaurant I’ve ever been to…
Earlier this year, I had a plan to revive my old food news website TasteTO as a restaurant review site. Toronto had lost its last official restaurant critic and it saddened me. Restaurants deserve better coverage and reviews than what gets posted to Instagram or Yelp (do people still use Yelp?), and I missed food writing. Especially writing critiques.
Plans were made, websites revamped, new social media accounts created, but before we could do anything with any of it, I got sick. Not with the Covid (well, maybe with the Covid; it was the weirdest cold ever, but this was very early January so it would have been an extremely pre-official case), but with a cold and allergies that left me with laryngitis for about six weeks. By the time I was well enough to have a conversation that didn’t involve sign language, text, or passed notes, the world was in lockdown.
We did our part and ordered delivery or take-out from any local spots that were open (and have continued to do so). But after a few attempts, it didn’t seem fair to be writing reviews based on take-away menus. Savvy chefs had revamped menus to only include dishes that traveled reasonably well, so the full scope of their regular menu was not usually available. Plus travel time sometimes requires reheating, and plating isn’t the same in plastic containers. Higher-end restaurants sent multi-course dishes with five or six separate containers for each dish, with sauces, garnishes and sides all individually packaged. I kind of loved the OCD-ness of it and respected and appreciated the effort made by various chefs to ensure their food was served as they intended. But reviewing it all seemed unfair.
Over the course of dining-in during these past five months, a few things have become very clear. The biggest of these is this — I like dining at home far more than I ever liked dining in a restaurant.
There. I said it.
That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy eating out. A cozy room, a charming server, great company, delicious food… all of these things make for a unique and memorable experience.
But… most of the things restaurateurs do to create “atmosphere” in a restaurant are generally the things that annoy me about the place. As a middle-aged punk lady, I get that I’m not the target demographic for most restaurants or bars, so maybe this is only an issue in my own head. But I probably dislike the playlist. I usually find the chairs uncomfortable, especially if the restaurant uses those cheap metal “gentrification chairs” that are intended to make the place look sort of industrial-rustic but create a decor so generic and bland that you can’t tell one place from the other. Also, those chairs and tables are probably too close to each other (something that likely won’t ever happen again in the After Times), and I really hate getting stuck next to another patron doused in perfume. (Don’t even get me started on staff wearing fragrance!) A restaurant packed full of other diners doesn’t create a “vibe” for me, it gives me a headache. Seriously, the main allure of indoor dining right now is that most people are too afraid to sit inside at all, so you’ve probably got the place all to yourself.
It’s too early to predict how severe the changes to the restaurant industry will be once Covid is done. Whether things will go back to some semblance of what was previously considered normal or if things will completely change (I never expect to see a self-serve buffet again). What I’m seeing in the media is a trend towards many more ghost kitchens — restaurants that only do delivery, with no in-house seating. I’ve heard from chefs who are running restaurants that are doing okay with just delivery/take-out and patio service, and who, in an effort to maintain safety for staff and customers, have no intention of opening up indoor dining at all.
When the time comes, I will probably go back to restaurants. I will gripe about the uncomfortable chairs and the tepid playlist, and pointedly turn on the flashlight on my phone to read the menu (assuming paper menus ever return). In the interim, though, I am super happy going to my favourite restaurant three times a day. The regular cook knows how crisp I like my bacon, and to not make my food overly spicy, and the guest chefs offer an amazing range of culinary options that keep things vibrant and interesting.
If only I wasn’t expected to help with the clean-up.