I, your faithful dining correspondent, supped inside like Ye Old Tymes for the first time since March 2020 last weekend. I still remember my last pre-COVID, carefree meal. The place: Winsor Dim Sum. The scene: raucous. But there was a whiff of last-meal-desperation in the air. I was with a public health expert, in fact, who told me to really make those final bites of dumpling count. He was right.
Since then, I’ve stolen moments here and there: a 5 p.m. indoor ceviche in an empty restaurant; a bowl of mussels and fries at a lonesome bistro with my head hanging out an open window like a thirsty puppy. But usually I ate outside, which was perfectly lovely in nice weather but truly miserable when it was foul. I remember sushi in a winter coat and spaghetti in a snowstorm. Nothing could keep me from my favorite restaurants — but, man, this was getting old. Can you relate?
But, last Saturday, a dear friend and a gourmand, too, invited my husband and I to his 40th birthday dinner at Atlántico, the Iberian seafood restaurant from Michael Serpa on Harrison Ave. in the South End. We would dine indoors at a communal table. I’d have to relinquish some control (and I love control). I couldn’t strategize just the right table next to a window; I couldn’t arrive at some pathetic hour and scurry away before the first true humans straggled in. Nope: This was an old-fashioned dinner out.
My family and I have been lucky. We have not caught COVID so far. I almost feel like a sitting duck, wondering where and when. Part of that is sheer luck; part of it might be some kind of bizarre immunity yet to be discovered; and part of it is precautions. I’ve tried to be sensible: I mask indoors. I avoid large crowds. I boost when the boosters come. But I’ve also been realistic: We go on vacations. We hang out indoors with friends (we test first). We live. But, you know, we’re careful.
Over the past few weeks, though, everything seemed to totally change. My kids are back in school without masks. My husband is back to taking business trips in huge convention halls where maybe .02 percent of the population is masked. Knowing this, I figured: What’s a dinner out going to do? I was tired of constantly calculating risk. Like so many people out there, I was constantly wondering: What’s worth it and what isn’t? Where does responsibility end and paranoia begin? When can I just eat a regular, delicious dinner out? Reader, I wanted to celebrate my friend’s birthday. And so I decided to just go for it.
I’m so glad I did. Atlántico does a phenomenal job for birthdays. They offer a vast prix-fixe menu for just $55, and every last bite was delicious. We were seated against floor-to-ceiling windows at a long table next to the bar: private enough to feel spoiled but also part of the scene (and it was busy, and just the right level of loud).
You’ll start with olives, spicy almonds, pan con tomate slathered with fresh juicy tomatoes, and glossy strips of anchovies, salty and fat, dripping with olive oil. Next: salt sod croquettes in a creamy squid ink sauce, bulbous, lemony Brussels wrapped in Manchego cheese, and a bottomless mess of mussels in a thin, zippy carrot-almond Romesco. And then there was more: sea bass in almond puree, rich braised lamb with a yogurt-cucumber salad, crispy wedges of patatas bravas with garlic aioli and spicy red sauce everywhere. Finally? A steaming pan of saffron-scented paella bursting with shrimp.
The food was excellent, but it wasn’t even that: It was the sounds I missed. The happy noise of those translucent bowls of mussels clattering onto the table. The leaning across the booth to hear what someone else was saying. The hum of humanity. The rhythm of busy-ness. The reassurance of normalcy. The theater of a restaurant. (All that happiness was helped along by a Mula Ahumada, chronicled in these pages not long ago: a smooth, smoky pineapple-tequila-mezcal cocktail with a fizzy pop of ginger beer.)
I know some of you might scoff. Maybe you have been living life as normal since 2021. But, judging by the people I saw shivering on various sidewalks throughout the South End as I drove home after dinner as the temps dipped to the low 50s, there are still plenty of you who prefer the safety — or the familiarity — of al fresco. And judging by the empty storefronts I saw, too, quite a few more are still staying home.
I’m not here to urge anyone to do something they feel uncomfortable with. Truth be told, I still have a risk budget — I’m probably going to eat outside from now on until restaurants roll up their sidewalks (wish they wouldn’t). But that dinner party was a warm, glowing glimpse of how gathering with friends in a busy restaurant can be so life-affirming, happy, important. And, for now, I’m still testing negative.
Atlántico, 600 Harrison Ave., Boston, 857-233-2898, www.atlanticoboston.com