At Sweet Basil in Needham and Waltham, owner Dave Becker chats with plenty of regulars, but he doesn’t usually get hospital requests. The pandemic was different. One of his longtime guests — a chipper Ernest Hemingway doppelganger who looked straight out of “Gulliver’s Travels,” he says — was critically ill with COVID-19. He’d been on a ventilator. He’d lost 50 pounds. He wanted to get well, of course. But he also wanted to get out and have some of Becker’s short rib tacos.
“He told me it was the first thing he thought of when he woke up from his coma,” Becker says, showing the texts to prove it. Sure enough, the customer returned a few days ago, frail but hungry.
It was a boost for Becker, who hadn’t seen many customers, let alone regulars, in months. He’s still getting back on track, adjusting to a new pace where some people are eager to get back to old routines and others are leery about visiting restaurants or have yet to be vaccinated.
“This is when we’re wondering if the phones were still working,” he jokes. “One day, we did zero people at Sweet Basil in Needham. But the good days are still good.”
Then there’s Jan Mark Holzer, known around the Seaport and South End as everyone’s favorite regular. On a typical week, he’d make his rounds: Atlántico, Black Lamb, Bar Mezzana, Chickadee, Shore Leave, Sportello. (He’s credited with inspiring Shore Leave’s tiki concept by gifting staffers tiki mugs collected on his adventures.) Throughout the pandemic, he’d purchase takeout from restaurants and bring food to staffers at other places whom he hadn’t seen in a while, a sort of urbane, gastronomic Robin Hood.
Now he’s back to visiting in person, settling into his favorite perches. As goes Holzer, hopefully, so goes the neighborhood.
“I’ve been going back as soon as places opened up. The places I frequent, they always felt safe to me, not crazy. But sitting alone at a table is like a sore thumb in the middle of the room, so I love to sit at the bar, chat with people. I make a point to wear a mask, every time I interact, but also to set an example for everybody around me. It’s sad to see how many people ditch the mask the moment they walk in,” he says.
For Holzer, who travels often for work at a software company, it’s less about the food (though he loves Mezzana’s crudo) and more about connecting with people.
“The concept of a meal is more than eating. It’s having a chat with people, the social aspect, hanging out. There is a level of trust,” he says.
When Atlántico bar manager Gabe Bellegard Bastos saw Holzer walk back in the door after so long, he went to the bathroom and cried.
“He’s the greatest regular in Boston that ever lived. He’s like Santa Claus,” Bastos says, often coming in bearing stories, tips, and those tiki mugs. “To see him again meant the universe. Hospitality is a two-way street. It’s how you make the guest feel, but it’s also how the guest makes you feel.”
Down the block at Bar Mezzana, Heather Lynch detects a different mood in her restaurant this spring — a contrast from the grimness of last year, when she’d often wander through an empty restaurant, and the tentative caution of summer.
“This is the first time through this whole year that there’s a noticeable buoyancy to people. Our staff feels safer; 90 percent have had at least one shot. There’s a different feeling this time. We’re finally seeing an end to this,” she says.
Says Sweet Basil’s Becker, “Even in masks, if all you can see are people’s eyes and eyebrows, they look more relaxed and happy. The furrow in the brow is gone.”
In Quincy, Ronnie Boudreau, a self-proclaimed “senior citizen,” came out of retirement to work the bar at Marina Bay’s Victory Point on Saturday nights. As a bartender for three decades, everywhere from Remington’s in the Theater District to Barrett’s in Charlestown, he’s seen a lot — working is the life he knows. Regulars sustain him.
“They’re like old friends I’ve known for years. You know what’s going on with their life, you interact with them, they know what I’m doing, and I know what they’re doing — children, job situation, house they have, everything. I like to talk to people and get deep down into who they are,” he says.
Without work, he felt lost.
“When I wasn’t doing anything for months and months, I fell into a trap and missed everything about the bartending, seeing people. Personally, I think you have to do something. You can’t just sit back and do nothing. I’m not a golfer anymore. I’m not running. It gets me out of bed. There’s nothing wrong with that,” he says.
It goes both ways. In Arlington center, Amy Reese is finally back to seeing her old pals at the Kickstand Café next to the Minuteman Bikeway. During the early days of the pandemic, it was a weekly pitstop with another family. They’d grab coffee, walk over to Spy Pond, and have a socially distanced breakfast.
“Then they shut down for two weeks for the holidays. Then they didn’t reopen. Then they posted new hours in April, and I thought, ‘This could be the worst April Fool’s joke ever,’” she says, laughing. Luckily, it wasn’t a joke: Her favorite café is back. Reese went twice on the first day they reopened, staking out her favorite table.
“It’s been incredible. They’ve worked so hard,” she says. “You run into everyone you know at some point. And there are familiar faces — even baristas I don’t interact with. I may not even know their names, but I know them. It’s a slice of normalcy. If Kickstand is open, it means we’re coming back. We’re making progress instead of treading water.”
“I feel alive again for the first time in a year. It’s nice to know people have missed us,” says Mezzana’s Lynch.
Kenny Jervis, a server at the Black Lamb in the South End — a 30-year industry vet with stints at Grafton Street, Harvest, Metropolis, and Tremont 647 — has a plea for customers as life returns to some semblance of normal.
“Please just go and get vaccinated as soon as possible. The more people do and numbers start to drop, the more people will feel comfortable,” he says. “We’re doing everything we can.”