As far as immersive restaurant experiences go, nothing beats dim sum for pure hedonistic overload. The cacophony. The circular tables that heighten the communal spirit among strangers, united by similar timing and the luck of a few empty seats. The anticipation as a cart cruises past your table — an array of shimmering delights —and you flag down its steerer to select your bounty. Instant gratification when a heaping portion lands on your plate. Even the RMV-like lines as you wait to be summoned inside, a mixture of hangry urgency and dutiful patience. The feeling of smug triumph when your number is called, and you’re ushered past other mere mortals still vying for a taste. Then — plonk! Almost immediately, a treasure lands on your plate whether you’ve asked for it or not. Snap apart those chopsticks; you’ve arrived.
This was the scene in late February at Winsor Dim Sum House in Quincy, a lifetime ago now, where I inhaled dumplings with two dear friends. This was right before COVID-19 upended our lives. Back then, there was a vague sense of unease: Is everything about to change? Is it safe to be out in public? We dug in with tentative resignation: This might be our last hurrah for a long while. Usually, dim sum confers a feeling of suspended time and recklessness; once you settle into a round table and start pointing, well, you know you’re going to be there for a while. Not this go-round. We knew without knowing that life was about to change and that our time there was limited.
And so it was until last weekend, when we made a new dim sum date. Just one difference: This time, we’d order takeout from Winsor and bring our wares to a park, dining many feet apart. My son had just started sports. Another lived with an elderly parent. We needed to be cautious. But we also needed our fix, and Winsor needed us.
We convened on a grassy patch near the Seaport like thirsty explorers in a desert finally reaching salvation, each arriving from a different direction. Was it the sun I felt on my shoulders? Were those people I saw, walking along the sidewalk, approximating some facsimile of normal life? Ah, yes, but for the masks. But for the eerie midday quiet. But for the many empty parking spaces. (Still got a ticket.)
Is takeout dim sum a contradiction in terms? An insult? A false promise? We reached into a plastic bag and pulled out little Styrofoam containers, each holding a wee portion of dumplings, shrimp noodles, fried sesame balls, spring rolls. Normally, platters of dim sum are displayed on enormous carts like jewels; in their confined vestibules, they looked like angry pets. The dumplings are us; we are the dumplings.
It is not easy to navigate dim sum while six feet apart. We took turns approaching each container, careful not to cross-contaminate. Normally, we’d dig in like Vikings, chopsticks poised above the communal plates. Not this time. We were tentative. We were respectful. We were operating gingerly, like new humans who’d just been issued a “how to be a person in a park during a pandemic, but with dumplings” handbook.
But we were also hungry, and so glad to be together. The initial awkwardness wore off as we tasted those familiar dishes — the shrimp noodles splashed in sweetish soy, the crunchy chive dumplings with crispy little corners. Was eating dim sum outside a bit like swimming on dry land? Yes, sort of. But the things that mattered — the food, the friends, the notion of some kind of autonomy over our lives — outweighed the weirdness. It was a little glimmer of aspiring normalcy. It felt sad but good. We’ll do it again.
If you’ve avoided your favorite restaurant because the experience will be different, I get it. This was a bittersweet outing. But places like Winsor will continue to exist if we bargain on the future to honor the past: We’ll settle on takeout dim sum now so that, soon enough again, we can gather around those communal tables and twirl noodles with carefree abandon. We’ll still be there; so should they, if we support them. And dumplings in any setting still taste good if you’re among friends.
Winsor Dim Sum, 706 Hancock St., Quincy, 617-481-5383, www.winsordimsumhouse.com
Kara Baskin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @kcbaskin.