So many folks go to the same bodega or deli or cafe every day and yet — God only knows why — they don’t bother to transcend the tedium and elevate the experience into the dreamscape that it could be. If that sounds judgmental, good. Let me be clear here: If the pandemic has not turned you into a regular, you are doing it all wrong. Very. “Three-quarters of the nearly 22,000 restaurants that closed across the U.S. between March 1 and Sept. 10 were businesses with fewer than five locations, according to listing site Yelp.com,” reported the Wall Street Journal. There are plenty of regulars at Starbucks and Domino’s, but that’s not what will bring us to a better post-pandemic normal. This is a moment for mom-and-pop regulars to rally.
I know a good amount about regulars. In my personal life, I basically go only to places where I am a regular. It just makes everything better. The bartender tries out their experimental cocktail on you. The chef maybe gives you a serving of the kitchen’s house meal (the off-menu dish cooked only for the staff). The barista makes your complicated coffee order with nothing more than a grumpy morning nod from you. I have written about my beloved (now shuttered) French bistro in Greenwich Village, where I kept a spare set of house keys behind the bar and where I met the city’s most-regular regular, who pulled up nightly in a burgundy limo and had a personal bar stool brought out from the kitchen, just for him (the perks of spending $4,000 a month). There was the 24-hour Cuban diner where they’d serve me a cortadito and then ask what I wanted, as I read the morning newspapers they had strewn across the counter. The “gay Hooters” where I won claw machine prizes for the bartenders. Or the speakeasy frequented by the likes of Blake Lively and Mark Zuckerberg, where I scored a wooden coin that let me cut the line. (When I went there to celebrate a little digital memoir I wrote, the bill came back with just a heart drawn on it and the word “CONGRATS.”)
This is the part where you’re thinking, yeah, that’d be nice, but look around: Everything is closed, and the world just doesn’t work like that anymore. It’s true that lots of eateries are closed — and, bluntly, many are gone for good — but there are still possibilities. Yes, the line between human connection and human contagion is as thin as a disposable mask these days, but food has a great track record of pursuing adventure while dodging danger. Restaurants are beacons of hope and love, not fear. The way to respond to your life getting smaller is to make it deeper.
This spring, I was living on a painstakingly charming corner of brownstone Brooklyn when I contracted a vicious bout of covid-19, which included an 18-day fever of 103 degrees. (On those contagious days, I didn’t leave the apartment except to collect food from the stoop delivered by a kindhearted Indian chef who went out of his way because I was a regular at his hole in the wall in Queens.)
Thankfully, I had already become a regular at the corner deli, a place called Bagel World that had hidden Batman figurines all over the place and a fresh cake under glass by the register. I never ordered much other than the baconeggandcheesesaltpepperketchup (in Brooklyn, it’s one word) on an everything bagel. The owner, whom I secretly called Hot Scott, would sometimes throw free things in, an extra banana or bag of chips. But it was mostly a place where I could have some human interaction after being cooped up solo for so much of my days. Here was an exchange from June with one of the deli’s workers:
HIM: You always remember my name so now I have remembered yours!
HIM: But, to be true, my friends call me Beto.
ME: Which one should I call you?
HIM: For you? Maybe Beto is better.
ME: Claro. I will call you Beto. And you can call me … Tuyo.
CO-WORKER: Are you trying to get free cookies again?
BETO, putting free cookies in my bag: Richie doesn’t try. Richie gets.
In some ways, I kept my distance, not just literally. They didn’t know I write about food. And it’s not like we texted each other or went for walks together after hours. But it began to feel more than familiar; it began to feel welcoming, like old leather. It’s so cliche to say that you become part of their workplace family — that cloying Olive Garden slogan! — but it’s true. Just from my order, or how I asked for it, or the bounce — or drag — in my step, they’d know my mood, the day or night I’d just had.
When I came to San Francisco in the summer, I feared that little luxury was gone. Instead of quaint Sesame Street-style neighborliness, I was now living in Dogpatch, a former dockyard where massive, hulking warehouses and factories had rapidly converted into glossy condos.
Even the most lockdown-clamped takeout allows pockets of humanity. If you can find a human moment riding an elevator or taking an Uber with someone, you can find it in snatching your bagged lunch special. Deliveries are already getting inhuman. What good does it do to infect face-to-face community with brutally transactional mechanics?
I first remember thinking about the staff at the Wooly Pig, across the street from me, when their matcha chocolate black sesame Rice Krispie squares disappeared. I learned that the chef who makes them was on vacation. When he returned, I introduced myself and thanked him for the return of the treats. That’s all it takes to get the ball rolling. Practice this sentence: “I really like it here, and I come all the time, so I figured I should introduce myself.” Wooly Pig is run by three affable young men — Jon, Justin and Lieng. I remember noticing a bandage on Jon’s wrist once as he rang up my order. “I hope you feel better,” I said. He looked at me quizzically. I pointed to his wrist. He just sorta stared blankly for a while. I thought maybe I had crossed a line. But then he piped up: “Y’know, Rich, I’ve had this on for three days, and you’re the first person to say anything about it. Thank you.”
I dated a guy from Serbia who would confuse the words “exhilarated” and “accelerated” and frequently huff that they pretty much meant the same thing anyway, and that’s what happens when the gravity of becoming a regular takes hold of you. It’s an exhilarating acceleration. There was a Cantonese-style braised beef stew I loved that I learned was going to be nixed from the menu, so I started ordering “the endangered stew” until one day they told me I had convinced them to keep it. Jon gave me a Wooly Pig mug and said, “Our rule is you get one for free if we can’t remember how many times you’ve been here.” They’d teach me an unplugged Disney medley playing on the speakers, and I’d teach them the world’s best ’80s medley. It has gotten to the point where they take bets on whether I’ll show up that day and jokingly repeat my order back to me by listing the one thing on the menu I don’t like. They cheered me on when I ordered three cups of cold-brewed coffee just before they closed, to help with an all-nighter. And they waived the bill when, in a sickly stupor, I walked out with all the juice and tea I could carry — roughly $25 worth — after forgetting to pay for it. Once, when I was looking for a fly trap, they made me one out of vinegar and dish soap.
Then there are the culinary perks. They tested out their hojicha panna cotta on me, as well as their soy sauce panna cotta (surprisingly good!). From the first bite, I haven’t stopped thinking about a buffalo-curry chicken wing they were testing, a carnivore’s gobstopper that expertly layers the flavors’ fire, heat, spice and tang while conducting a taste bud TED talk on how those characteristics — often blurred into synonyms — are actually very distinct.
On election night, we tapped hopeful tallboys of passion fruit-blackcurrant-vanilla beer. They started giving me jars of experimental housemade flavored oils — three flavors labeled with Sharpie on masking tape: five spice, Sichuan, and Thai — and I was so proud to be the first paying customer when they started selling them. One day in December, they invited me over in off hours to try skin-on roasted pork belly. This month, a text of an off-menu kimbap photo with a note: “Saved for you.”
It’s not an exaggeration to say the Wooly Pig crew has been my pandemic family (I’m psyched for barista Becky to deliver her baby, due Feb. 8). Thank God, because only family could handle my asking to add a bit of hoisin sauce to their curry-marinated fried chicken banh mi. Or my desecration of their tom yum miso soup by drinking it as a broth.
If I turn the other way down the street — which I didn’t do for weeks — there is the Boba Shop and adjoining Sandwich Shop, mostly run by William and Ara, a brother-and-sister team. Even after they put up a “SOLD OUT” sign, they keep an extra Dutch crunch roll for me. They introduced me to popping bobas, and I’ve never looked back, formalizing my complicated regular order to something we call Mango Love Potion. I brought a friend recently who tried a strawberry lemonade green tea with litchi popping bobas, and she mentioned that it wasn’t overpoweringly sweet the way she had feared. “They use the best sweetener here,” I explained. “It’s called William.” A few days later, when there was a sign up that the store had closed early, William heard me sighing. “Is that Richard?” He rushed up from the back office and said he had time for one more order before he left. “Just don’t tell anyone,” he said.
But I want to tell everyone. Because everyone should have moments like these. They’re infinitely accessible at whatever venue you frequent. To borrow a thought from our fraught politics: Being a regular isn’t about a moment; it’s about a movement. Try it for yourself and see how it moves you.