Restaurants ripple through the fabric of our lives, right there with schools and churches and offices, but with better food, and somebody else to clean up the messy parts. We count on them for comfort, for entertainment, for hooking up, for our first jobs, for giving our city something to brag about besides the Alamo and the Spurs.
Without restaurants, how do we know where we stand in the world? We’re no longer the Friday power lunchers at Paesanos in Lincoln Heights. We’re no longer the happy hour party people at Piatti. We’re no longer the tourists cramming Mi Tierra downtown. And we’re no longer the grumpy old guys nursing coffee at Jim’s.
Nick Anthony of Papouli’s Greek Grill told me that in 17 years, he’s seen baby showers, birthday parties, graduation bashes, wedding receptions and memorial dinners come through his restaurants. From cradle to grave, he’s seen it all. The pandemic took down one of his three locations.
The pandemic has cost San Antonio the temples where we celebrate those rituals.
“Restaurants are the cultural touchstones for all communities,” said Anna Tauzin of the Texas Restaurant Associations. “That’s where life is celebrated. We’re going to have to find a new way to celebrate life, because we won’t have the restaurants we love.”
If the group’s predictions hold true, we might lose 25 to 30 percent of the independent restaurants in the state before it’s over. In Texas, almost 700,000 restaurant workers have lost their jobs already, along with the small blessings of those jobs — hours to suit any lifestyle, the ability to jump from kitchen to kitchen, the outlaw mystique of life on the line.
And we their customers lost the tattooed barista who talks about wrestling, the waiter with the Ivy League music degree who talks about the Bach sonata playing overhead, the cook who makes steak tartare for us even though it’s been off the menu for three years.
And we lost momentum. The momentum that led UNESCO to name San Antonio a Creative City of Gastronomy largely because of a restaurant scene that honors its roots. The momentum that led national media outlets like Esquire, Food & Wine, Bon Appetit and Eater to list small San Antonio places like The Jerk Shack, Carnitas Lonja, 2M Smokehouse and Mixtli right up there with East and West Coast powerhouses.
I’ve always said that it’s my job as a restaurant critic to help people spend their entertainment money. Because for most of us, that’s what restaurants are: Not just fuel, but entertainment. Maybe we don’t go to concerts or basketball games or museums, but we go out to eat because it’s the best cheap thrill in the world to eat things we would never fry at home and to watch people who’ve forgotten how to behave in public.
Takeout’s fine. But getting takeout from a restaurant is like digital vs. vinyl. The music’s still good, but you miss the way it smells, the way it feels, the way it crackles and pops. The songs sound different now anyway, with just a few tables open around town under the 25 percent occupancy rule and people unsure whether they’re comfortable going out at all. And just try eating with your mask on.
The pandemic brings up questions. Without restaurants, where would we go on first dates? You learn a lot by watching how somebody acts at a restaurant. Is she nice to the waiter? Is he too cheap to leave a 20 percent tip? And face it: Both of you talk with your mouths full.
Without restaurants, where would so many of us find our first jobs? I paid for gas in high school and tuition in college working fast food. The graveyard shift. I got burned, cut and had somebody smash the drive-thru window trying to punch me. But with zero skills at 15 years old, I got paid.
The pandemic has cost San Antonians those chances to create first impressions.
I could do without some of the impressions now. For a minute in April, I was the last man on earth, standing alone under the golden piñatas at the bakery counter of Mi Tierra, waiting for carryout enchiladas while rainbow conchas and stacks of toilet paper for sale shared my line of sight. I’ve never seen that lobby anything less than a dozen people deep, doing a beehive dance in flip-flops and souvenir shirts.
The scene looked more like something out of “I Am Legend.”
More than being Hollywood creepy, though, it was heartbreaking. A day in the middle of what would have been Fiesta in San Antonio, with no cascarón confetti. A Night in Old San Antonio, the Battle of Flowers parade, chicken on a stick, all of it pushed to November.
During the pandemic, I’ve stood in empty dining rooms at Southerleigh Fine Food & Brewery at the Pearl, at Fish City Grill at the dawn of crawfish season, at Rome’s Pizza on De Zavala Boulevard, at Ro-Ho Pork & Bread on the Northeast Side.
The silence was oppressive, the void as loud as those same spaces when they’re full. There’s a reason restaurant designers intentionally create spaces that bring on the boom. When we’re out, we want to hear the music of silverware, cocktail shakers, pans on the stove, the couple next to us having a fight or getting engaged.
The pandemic has cost San Antonians that joyful noise.
Not just the noise, but the memories that go with it. We were one of those couples last year. I proposed to my wife at Gallery on the Park at the St. Anthony hotel. I have pictures of the food.
At the Pearl last month, I stood outside the green space in front of Cured. Green space is generous; it’s just a patch of artificial turf. But that turf holds a memory for me: It’s where I went after the interview that landed me this job.
On the turf that night, people were doing acrobatic yoga, spinning each other around while a dog watched the humans with the same fascination we have for dogs. But the day I got takeout from Cured, the turf was cordoned off, closed like all the common spaces that day at the Pearl, normally a rattle-and-hum diorama of the city’s restaurant culture.
Even the fountains outside the Pearl food hall were turned off. No children to play in them anyway.
The pandemic has cost San Antonians the chance for parents, their kids and this year’s hopeless romantics to make memories of their own.
On ExpressNews.com: Dining critic Mike Sutter on what it’s like to eat out on S.A.’s reopening day
We need restaurants to comfort us when things get real. When my uncle Marion Pierce died in East Texas, we stood silent at the grave. The conversation didn’t start until we went to CB’s Hamburgers afterward, when I found out he’d seen horror up close in World War II, something he never talked about. I found that out from another uncle that I’d been feuding with for five years.
The restaurant was a demilitarized zone, a place to put down our grievances.
The pandemic has cost San Antonians their comfort zones.
The struggle to reopen those comfort zones is real. Like the disease itself, the restaurant resurrection rules are complicated. Dining rooms are open at 25 percent capacity. Maybe 50 percent come Monday, maybe not.
Lucy Cooper’s Ice House on the North Side, for example, can’t reopen yet because it’s considered a bar first, and bars remain closed for now. Anybody who’s had Lucy’s Big Kahuna burger or Korean barbecue wings or fried green tomato BLT might disagree. But that’s how it is, so the best San Antonio bar food joint food remains dark, its outdoor fire pits cold, the ruckus silent.
I want those wings. I want my favorite waiter at Cookhouse Restaurant to call me boss again. I want Full Belly in Stone Oak to make it out of its infancy alive. I want to get back to the business of being a restaurant critic, balancing hard truths, high praise and mixed metaphors.
I want Jorge Rojo at Ro-Ho Pork & Bread to stop worrying about hiding his chairs because desperate people will take upside-down chairs off abandoned tables and sit down anyway, even if the dining room’s closed.
“When they come into my restaurant, it’s not my restaurant anymore,” he said. “It’s their restaurant.”
Give me back my restaurants.
Mike Sutter is a food and drink reporter and restaurant critic in the San Antonio and Bexar County area. To read more from Mike, become a subscriber. firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter: @fedmanwalking | Instagram: @fedmanwalking