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WHAT SHE'S HAVING | DEVRA FIRST

Once we ate together in restaurants. That feels like another era

What makes these spaces so important? We are about to find out.

Just a month ago, China Pearl Restaurant in Chinatown hosted a dim sum brunch to show support for neighborhood small businesses in Chinatown hit with a slowdown of business over concerns for the coronavirus.
Just a month ago, China Pearl Restaurant in Chinatown hosted a dim sum brunch to show support for neighborhood small businesses in Chinatown hit with a slowdown of business over concerns for the coronavirus.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

This is a postcard from the lost world: the world in which we met friends in public places to eat and drink, in which children went to school and adults went to work, in which independent businesses had a tough but viable path forward, in which we did not FaceTime our parents and command them to stay home, in which we did not FaceTime our children and promise to stay home and then two hours later head to the store for one last what? Roll of toilet paper? Hoarders, you have been doing it wrong: a case of wine, a cache of coffee, the good chocolate, these are the things you need.

In this postcard I am at the counter of Ittoku, a Japanese restaurant in Porter Square so popular that management had to start an online waiting list for the izakaya. At that counter, just a few weeks back, I am sipping an Old Fashioned made with Akashi whiskey and watching a crew in yellow shirts hustle in the open kitchen before me. To my left: a couple quietly gorging on takoyaki, a ball-shaped fried octopus snack; omusoba, omelets filled with soba noodles; and skewers of yakitori, grilled chicken parts, from the tail to the gizzard to the heart. To my right: a bunch of friends sharing plates of sushi and okonomiyaki, the beloved eggy pancakes filled with all kinds of savory ingredients, drizzled with tart-sweet sauce. A group at a long table toasts with fruity drinks and pitchers of Asahi beer. In this country we so often have an idea of Japanese cuisine as serene, elegant, and austere. I wanted to tell you to come here to enjoy Japanese drinking food: sometimes greasy, bombastically flavorful, and reasonably priced. Instead I am telling you to stay home — something, at this point, I hope you do not need to be told.

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It wasn’t long ago, but it feels like a different era. What recently seemed like a great night out now just looks like a set of disease vectors.

Justin Springer, of Outside the Box, DJed at Suya Joint in Dudley Square, during the first event in Boston Black Restaurant Challenge.
Justin Springer, of Outside the Box, DJed at Suya Joint in Dudley Square, during the first event in Boston Black Restaurant Challenge.Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

It has been hard, as someone who writes about restaurants, to figure out how to write about them in this moment. I believed dining rooms should close to help slow the spread of coronavirus, and I also didn’t want to come down against business owners who stayed open to support themselves and their staff, operators who were being forced to make that hard choice. It was a relief to get the official edict, to have the choice made. Now we move forward, and I hope all levels of government take swift steps to ensure a future for the restaurant industry and its workers. In 2018, according to the National Restaurant Association, Massachusetts was home to almost 16,000 restaurants and bars, generating more than $18 billion in sales, and last year foodservice jobs made up 9 percent of employment in the state.

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These are some of the quantifiable reasons restaurants are vital. But there are so many other ways they are important. They provide joy and nourishment. They bring us together. They give us spaces to celebrate the happy occasions, and when we are lonely, they are oases, offering companionship and a little bit of care. We are much poorer without them.

Happier days in August 2018 at Chickadee.
Happier days in August 2018 at Chickadee.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

I’m thinking back, too, to another recent meal, at Mahaniyom: brand new, serving regional Thai specialties in Brookline Village. We ate yum som-o, a pomelo salad; prawns with springy glass noodles; a platter of pork belly with three different chile pastes; and a swoony crab red curry with betel leaves and small bundles of vermicelli on the side. The place was tiny and relaxed, with a great vibe. The food was exhilarating. I couldn’t wait to get back. It was open for less than a month.

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I am glad, at least, that I did get there — unlike Barra, a little Union Square bar serving Mexican food, from operators with ties to Mexico City (including Paola Ibarra of Celeste); or Tambo22, Taranta chef Jose Duarte’s Chelsea salute to his native Peru. Both opened around the same time as Mahaniyom. These are restaurants I wanted to celebrate, and I wanted you to get to celebrate them too. Will they be able to host guests again one day? How many of the small independents that help give the city character will reopen? In this reckoning, we are sure to lose some of our favorites. We are sure to lose so much.

Owner Yahya Noor talked with Sandra Aleman Nijjar at Tawakal Halal Cafe in East Boston last fall.
Owner Yahya Noor talked with Sandra Aleman Nijjar at Tawakal Halal Cafe in East Boston last fall.Nic Antaya for The Boston Globe/file

So what can we, the customers, do to support the restaurants in our communities now? We can buy gift cards and T-shirts (restaurants have the best merch), order food to go where that’s still an option, and tip mightily when we do. It is worth noting that Ittoku and Tambo22 both currently offer takeout and delivery.

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What was the last restaurant you went to before everything flipped upside-down and we dangled from daily life like a bunch of kids strapped into a roller coaster stuck in place, blood rushing to our heads? Maybe it was a festive watering hole with margaritas, the perfect place for a birthday party. Maybe it was a subdued nook serving tasting menus, a neighborhood bar, or a McDonald’s where you brought your kids because they really wanted to go. The specifics don’t much matter. Savor that memory like a hard candy tucked in your cheek. Let it dissolve slowly. We are about to learn how even a meal at the most unremarkable restaurant has something of value to offer.


Devra First can be reached at devra.first@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.