My first (and last, for now) restaurant meal post-shutdown

The warm butter cake at Mastro's in Beverly Hills.
The warm butter cake at Mastro’s in Beverly Hills.
(Bill Addison / Los Angeles Times)

It was a belated celebration meal for one of those milestones with a zero at the end of it. Your birthday, so you choose the restaurant, I’d told my friend — as long as the place had outdoor seating. It was the first meal back in a restaurant post-shutdown for both of us. He has an immuno-compromised family member he sees often; caution remains paramount. Any form of dining out carries some risk, but we’d agreed to take the chance of having dinner on a patio.

He chose Mastro’s steakhouse in Beverly Hills.

We booked a late table last Sunday; it was Father’s Day and the restaurant was as full as current regulations allow it to be. I noticed valet attendants were parking cars again. It felt more comfortable to find a spot on the street.

Inside, the three staffers at the host stand wore masks. On the way to the elevator we walked through the first floor’s dining rooms full of couples and groups at every other table; another staffer greeted us on the third floor and showed us to a side balcony with three tables.

The feelings when we sat down were the kaleidoscope I’d imagined them to be: familiar, alien, happy, anxious, muddled.

Servers and bussers wore masks, face shields and thin, wrinkled plastic gloves they changed often. My friend and I wondered when we should take our masks off. We removed them after ordering our meal and didn’t put them back on until we left. The light breeze as we looked out over North Cañon Drive felt irrationally reassuring.

I haven’t been drinking much at home. The first sip of a gin martini from Mastro’s bar was chiropractic — the years I’ve spent in restaurants, examining food from every intellectual and emotional and tangible angle, snapped back into place.

Shrimp cocktail at Mastro's in Beverly Hills.
Shrimp cocktail at Mastro’s in Beverly Hills.
(Bill Addison / Los Angeles Times)

We disappeared into chophouse classics: shrimp cocktail (the prawns perched on the edge of the glass, enveloped in dry ice for goofy drama); chopped salad; a small but impressively meaty crab cake (I’m picky about those), bone-in filet for him and rib-eye for me, loaded baked potato, creamed corn, sauteed spinach. Mastro’s signature warm butter cake, crisp and topped with a massive scoop of ice cream, made a fitting delayed birthday cake.

We relaxed into the meal; I was glad my venturing out had been to mark a special occasion. The auralike sensation of COVID-19 danger never receded — nor should it have. We asked our server, upbeat and ever-moving throughout our meal, how he was doing and how things had been. He shrugged, smiling, and motioned to his protective gear and said the restaurant had been busy. I left a generous tip.

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The next day my brain spun with plans. I needed to get back to the work of being a restaurant critic. Emails arrived daily with news of restaurants reopening. I thought about all the restaurants already back in action, all the carefree-looking people I’d glimpsed in dining rooms across the city the last few weeks. It’s vital that the economy boots up; it’s crucial, because capitalism and our government provide few to no safety nets for restaurant workers who don’t return to work.

On Tuesday, California recorded its most new COVID-19 cases — more than 6,600 — in a single day since the pandemic hit the United States. Los Angeles County, home to 25% of the state’s population, logged 40% of the state’s new cases in the last two weeks, during which time coronavirus-related statewide hospitalizations leapt 32%. By the time this newsletter publishes, the number of cases reported in L.A. County since the pandemic began will have surpassed 92,000, including more than 3,200 deaths. Infections are spiking among younger people.

Then I reread my colleague Lucas Kwan Peterson’s column about bad-faith offers of employment (proposing plumbing work rather than server positions previously held, for example) made at Yamashiro in Hollywood and the perilous ways refusing a job could affect state unemployment benefits. The phrase in the piece’s headline stuck in my head: lose-lose.

I thought about our server at Mastro’s in his face shield, and the ethics of him potentially risking his life to serve me a steak.

There are no right answers; I can’t tell anyone which choices to make. I want to be eating in the world and writing about it. But for now — this week, anyway — I stopped making more plans to eat in restaurants. I’m doubling back down on takeout.


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Our stories

Patricia Escárcega writes about the rise of Mexican vegan cuisine: “Across the country, restaurateurs and chefs are reinvigorating familiar dishes of Mexican and Mexican American cooking for a new generation, while also nudging the cuisine closer to its pre-Columbian heritage, an omnivorous but plant-heavy diet rooted in corn, beans, squash, wild greens, cactus, nuts and chiles.”

Hadley Tomicki looks at Perle in Pasadena, chef Dean Yasharian’s first solo project, which was set to open its doors right as the March shutdown was announced. (Roderick Daniels, one of my favorite sommeliers in the city, is general manager, so expect an ace wine program.)

Ben Mims shares recipes for fresh berry pies. (I was a taster; they’re amazing.) Being a pie obsessive, I threw in six favorite bakeries around the city that make stellar summery pie.

Genevieve Ko schools us on the right fats to choose for frying.

— As a Maryland kid I grew up eating Philly-style water ice in the summer. Love Jenn Harris’ story about Lemeir Mitchell and his newly opened Happy Ice on Melrose Avenue.

— Lastly, congrats to colleague Garrett Snyder! He took first place in the Association of Food Journalists 2020 awards in the Best Newspaper Food Feature category for his story about how chicken sausage links became a centerpiece of South L.A.’s Black food culture. (Lucas made an accompanying video, visiting Mama’s Chicken and Best Buy Meat.)

Chef Dean Yasharian at his new Pasadena restaurant, Perle.
Chef Dean Yasharian at his new French-inspired restaurant, Perle, in Pasadena.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)