“It is a happy condition of affairs that philosophers, poets, merchants and artists can join together at a dinner, and without a blush perform the function of feeding themselves open in public.” –Lin Yutang, The Importance of Living
On March 13, I consumed one of my last meals in a restaurant for the foreseeable future. I found myself on North State Street in Chicago, surrounded by employees munching on Hot Cheetos and kale salads before the lunch rush.
What struck me most about Sweetgreen was the ironic sadness of the place. Sunlight from the floor-to-ceiling windows illuminated the white linoleum interior and I watched people come in and scuff up the spotless floors. Some people looked frazzled, some talked about their divorce through AirPods, and some mechanically placed their order and rushed out, presumably, to the office.
The salad was good, but the people-watching was better. In the little see-through box of Sweetgreen I had a tiny, tiny, taste of Chicago. I endured sirens interrupting my conversation and felt the constant whip of cold air hitting me as a new customer opened the door. More inspiring, though, was the man who could be seen through the window skipping across the wide crosswalk, singing to himself.
Within five hours, I found myself in my childhood basement in Iowa, and in just one day, I’d be quarantined away from my family, my friends and my favorite restaurants. That 30-minute lunch with a friend continues to permeate my thoughts.
In this new reality, one’s love for a restaurant is expressed through purchasing gift cards, ordering delivery or making a trip to their curbside. Places that still hold a large spot in my heart can no longer be experienced within the walls that make each meal so wonderful.
As someone who derives a lot of joy from going out to eat, I’ve been thinking a lot about what the restaurant experience will look like once all of this is over. The talented chef and author Gabrielle Hamilton wrote an article for the New York Times about recently closing the doors of her world-renowned restaurant, Prune. The piece offers a glimpse into the not-so-pretty reality of the restaurant world and how, like many small businesses, most are only hanging on by a thread.
Hamilton opened her restaurant with the vision of bringing people together in a cozy space to enjoy a heartfelt meal. Prune offered a restaurant experience filled with intimacy and grit, one that was built out of love, not a desire to expand and monopolize. “So I’m going to let the restaurant sleep, like the beauty she is, shallow breathing, dormant. Bills unpaid. And see what she looks like when she wakes up — so well rested, young all over again, in a city that may no longer recognize her, want her or need her,” she wrote.
The idea that restaurants as we once knew them — as places for business meetings, family celebrations, first dates — may no longer exist, and moreover that we might not need them, is unsettling. What is Iowa City without brunch at Hamburg Inn No. 2, where you could write novels based on the conversations overheard? Or without the unpredictability of Pancheros around bar close?
Hamburg brunch is now consumed out of Styrofoam at the kitchen table, and the Pancheros’ Saturday-night chaos no longer exists. To grow up in Iowa City means to grow up with the food trucks at Arts Fest, pulling you in for yet another funnel cake, or waiting in line at Dane’s Dairy as your mouth salivates.
Food shapes our life. The knowledge of our relentless hunger shapes our day and the promise of a good meal after working hard is motivation at its best. As philosopher Lin Yutang put it, “many men have circumvented sex, but no saint has yet circumvented food and drink. There are ascetics who have learned to live a continent life, but even the most spiritual of men cannot forget about food for more than four or five hours.”
Whether we like it or not, food has the power, three times a day, to command our lives. To be able to drive through your hometown and create lifelong memories in an establishment meant primarily to nourish is a privilege that cannot be understated.
The restaurant, to me, is good only in part due to the food. Like a scent or a song, a good dish can bring us back to memories that we have already been so lucky to experience.
Although a pandemic can take away the ability to sit shoulder-to-shoulder as we eat, it can only do so much to erase memories.
Instead of wallowing in my pessimism about the future of dining out, I’m reliving the beautiful meals I’ve been able to experience already. It isn’t easy to forget the last place you ate at before leaving for college (Soseki) or the first meal you had upon arriving home (Pullman). A restaurant can give us a home away from home, and now, when home is where we must be, we can only choose to relish in the memories we’ve made — albeit through the limits of a takeout container.
For what more is a good memory, or a good meal, worth than giving you a reason to smile in times of darkness?
Nina Elkadi is an Iowa City native who now attends Harvard College, where she studies food, literature and history.