‘I’ll have the Post-Pandemic Special please’

Restaurants are opening up, gingerly, for indoor dining Friday. Whether you go or not is up to you.

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A plate and paper set at a table in a restaurant.

My last indoor restaurant meal, at Kamehachi in Northbrook on March 16. News of the virus and the place being utterly deserted left me with an unexpected emotion: fear.

Photo by Neil Steinberg

Eating is a big deal. You don’t need me to tell you that. We give special names for the times throughout the day when we stop whatever we’re doing to eat: Breakfast! Lunch! Dinner! A big part of every faith centers around eating, all those feasts and fasts. Some folks can’t nibble a breadstick without gravely informing God.

You could argue that making a fuss about eating is what makes us human. Animals generally gobble nourishment where and when they find it. “Only people actively, regularly, and continuously work on the portioning out of their food,” Margaret Visser writes on the first page of “The Rituals of Dinner.”

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To hint at how exaggerated our regard for eating is, consider the other end of the alimentary tract, briefly: going to the bathroom. No ritual, little lingering, no reviews. We don’t even like to think about it, never mind talk about it. That attitude could work for eating too — humans could consume enough food to get through the day in 60 seconds flat. Think of the time we’d save.

But we don’t, generally. Eating in restaurants is an even bigger deal. Dining out can be one of the most significant parts of our lives.

I can’t recall much from 1975. In fact, I remember only one moment: My sister and I, on our first visit to Chicago, in a leather booth, holding back laughter as a waiter in a tuxedo presents us a bowl of greens set in ice.

“Here at zee Blackhawk, we spin zee sah-lad not wahnce, not tweyes, but sree tahmes!”

What began as a practical necessity for travelers — the stagecoach stops for the night, the innkeeper carves off some mutton and draws a mug of ale — now has assumed magnified importance, ingrained in our lives.

Chicago, and Illinois, opening restaurants Friday for indoor dining should be a milestone in our civic recovery from COVID-19. V-E Day, Victory in Eating.

Instead it seems more like a dilemma, almost a trap.

At least to me. Which is surprising. You’d think Restaurant Boy would be in a sprinter’s crouch, napkin tied around my neck like a bib, knife and fork in each hand, waiting for the gun to spring out of the blocks.

But I’m not.

First, the memory of my last restaurant meal lingers.

It was March 16. Gov. J.B. Pritzker had announced that all restaurants would close at 9 p.m. Lunch seemed in order. I stopped by Kamehachi in Northbrook.

It felt odd to sit alone in an empty restaurant. I ordered. Time passed. I glanced across the vacant room at the sushi chef, and felt a flash of ... what? Fear. Real, genuine fear.

“I’m going to die...” I thought, “for a negi-hamachi roll.”

I didn’t. The roll was excellent. I’ve certainly missed sitting in restaurants for the past three months. As restaurants began opening up outdoor seating, we’ve gone to some. A few have the drill down cold, like Blufish in Glenview: masked waiters, wrapped utensils, disposable menus. Others didn’t. The waiters wear their masks around their chins. We went to a local breakfast place that set salt shakers on the table . My wife sat staring at them, like instead of Salt and Pepper they were Death and Disease.

At night I walk the dog, and pass the Landmark Inn. Night after night, the patrons pack the sidewalk. The tables are separated, mostly, but in places the customers are almost back-to-back. I don’t quite mutter “Fools!” and hurry past. But I do take an elephant step toward the curb to avoid the miasma I imagine hanging over the scene.

So yes, go to restaurants, if you like. It’s vital to economic recovery. Go, if you’re up for it. Celebrate and have fun. But I’ve eaten out a lot in my life, and hope to eat out a lot more ... later. I’m sure I won’t be missed. I’m sure would-be patrons will be wedging themselves in the doorways, pointing at their open, eager, baby-bird mouths, going “Ah ... ah ... ah ...”

But not me. Not yet. Part of the pleasure in eating is the waiting, the anticipation; that’s what those fasts are about. I’m waiting to see just how terribly this virus comes raging back. So I plan to reserve a indoor table sometime in ... ah ... November, maybe. Until then, after you, please. Enjoy.

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