Mimi Sheraton, the former New York Times restaurant critic, told me that when she gave up reviewing restaurants, she couldn't wait to cook -- and stay -- at home again. She relished the thought of not having to go out every night. But on her third or fourth night at home, she and her husband sat down at the dinner table, looked at each other, put down their napkins -- and acknowledged the inevitable. "Let's go out," she said. And they did.
Cabin fever had set in. And it can happen to any of us. Now that broad swaths of folks across the country are tightening their belts, negotiating a budget (sometimes for the first time) and deciding where to cut expenses, dining out might be getting the ax. Never did staying home and cooking your way through that stack of cookbooks gathering dust by the bed ever look so, well, virtuous. Why go out when we can cook just as well as most restaurants for less than half the price?
Actually, there is a very good reason. If everyone suddenly gives up restaurant-going when times are tough, those favorite restaurants may no longer be around when times get better. Which means it's a good thing, every once in a while at least, to give in to that cabin fever and go out for dinner.
Oh, eating in every night is fun for a while. Cozy family meals on weeknights, dinner parties or potlucks on the weekends, pancakes Sunday morning. But then there's the shopping, the cleaning up -- the claustrophobia. Only you and your dear ones. And piles of dishes to wash up.
Lately, I seem to be hearing more often from friends who have adopted the stay-at-home diet with a vengeance. "What's new? What's hot?" They plague me with questions about the restaurant scene without the least intention of going to any of these places. Kind of like my father, who read every movie review yet never went to a movie.
A place like Palate Food + Wine, where everything is miraculously below $20, may get their attention. But it's so far, they'll say. Or they'll complain that you can't just waltz in on a Friday night.
And I have to point out that while your modest neighborhood restaurant may be doing good business, other restaurants are languishing, especially during the week. These days it is possible to walk into Pizzeria Mozza and maybe find a spot at the bar or occasionally nab a reservation at Osteria Mozza later than 5 p.m. and earlier than 10. Need I say more? A table at Cut may still require some lead time, but not as much as before the economic meltdown. Last week, with only a couple of hours' notice, I got a table at XIV, the new Michael Mina restaurant in West Hollywood.
And what about places that are less well known? The restaurateurs and chefs eager to make their mark on the culinary landscape but without the bank accounts to see them through the slowdown? They need customers -- and now.
I can't help but think that if everybody suddenly becomes incredibly disciplined stay-at-home cooks, when things turn around, which of your favorite restaurants will still be around? Will you be able to indulge in older Barolo and Sangiovese at Valentino or try a bottle from a new producer Piero Selvaggio ferreted out on his last trip to Italy? Will you be able to slip onto the bar stool at Lucques for steak frites with made-to-order béarnaise sauce or dig into a plate of Gino Angelini's bucatini all' Amatriciana at Angelini Osteria any time you get the urge? Will Michael Cimarusti still be turning out his astonishing tasting menus at Providence or Pieter Verheyde be pouring some wonderful find from Croatia or Friuli in the garden at Bastide? Will you be able to feast on the ham of hams -- jamón ibérico -- at Bar Pintxo late at night or a towering chilled seafood platter at Anisette?
OK, OK. I don't mean to scare anybody. Just please, don't entirely give up on going out to your favorite restaurants. They need your support. Now, more than ever, it's important to be a regular.
You don't have to go overboard. Maybe cut back on the pricey cocktails or the glass of Champagne. Order a modest bottle of wine instead of wines by the glass: It's always a better deal, and you'll drink better too. Instead of zeroing in on that stupendous bistecca for two or that pasta lavished with truffles, see what else the menu has to offer.
Less costly options
I think you'll find that restaurateurs share your pain and have added some less-pricey items, or modestly priced prix-fixe meals. You certainly don't have to feel deprived. There are lots of ways to eat well without going crazy. Share an appetizer or a main course. Skip dessert. But do savor every bite. Tip generously and let the chef or restaurateur know how much you appreciate what they're doing.
You cannot keep the entire restaurant scene alive by yourself, but you can support the restaurants that have meant something to you over the years. Show your face: Don't just disappear. It's better to come in more often for a bite at the bar than once in a blue moon for a big blowout dinner.
Because if we don't support our restaurants now, they may not be still serving when things turn around and we really have something to celebrate.