As we’ve been working through the pandemic, covering the news, coming up with ideas for what to do while staying home and talking with somms, chefs, winemakers and fellow wine and food lovers about what’s been happening in their lives, we have also been chatting among ourselves about what we miss most from “normal life.” Dining out, as you might expect with this group, has been high on that list.
“With all the extra time to think these days, it dawned on me that the most laughs I’ve had in life have been around a table, eating and drinking with friends and family,” said our usually-traveling senior editor James Molesworth, now grounded in Manhattan. “And many of those have been at restaurant tables.”
Laughter, comfort, insight, a sense of ease, a look at history: These are what a great dining experience can bring, whether at a grand restaurant or a humble neighborhood spot. From a post-college introduction to haute cuisine to a recent visit to a famed restaurant amid the march of history, our editors share the moments when food, wine, people and location combined to become something greater than a meal out of the house.
More Table Thoughts: We also asked sommeliers about their restaurant reflections—and the first stops they plan to make after reopening.
And restaurant regulars shared their dining-out memories—and how they are helping their favorite spots.
Extravagance in ParisExecutive editor Thomas Matthews
In 1979, when I was 26, I was living in Spain writing a novel and went to Paris to meet a friend from college. Charlie and I decided that, in addition to exploring museums and churches, we should experience haute cuisine. We pored over the Michelin guide and decided to spend a large portion of our limited budget on lunch at Restaurant Lasserre, which was one of only six Parisian restaurants with three Michelin stars, the top ranking.
The restaurant, founded in 1942, occupies a mansion near the Louvre. We entered and approached a desk where a stern-looking fellow in an impeccable suit asked our name.
“Um, Matthews?” Charlie and I felt young, poor and out of place.
He looked in his book, nodded and gestured toward an elevator. A uniformed attendant escorted us up two floors; the silent ride seemed to take forever. Then the doors opened, and three men approached. “Monsieur Matthews!” they cried. “Welcome! Please come this way.”
Charlie and I suddenly felt right at home.
The room was luxurious yet comfortable, filled with light because the roof actually retracted and was open to the sunny afternoon. Sunlight gleamed on old silver; quiet conversation sounded like music; servers bustled in a graceful ballet.
We struggled with ordering in French, but the sommelier was patient and friendly. He recommended foie gras terrine with a glass of Sauternes; the flavors struck us like a lightning bolt. We followed with roast lamb and a half-bottle of red from St.-Emilion, then finished with espresso and chocolates. The elevator ride down was over in an instant, and then we were back on the street, poor once again, yet somehow much richer than before.
Encountering a Chef Before He Became World-FamousFeatures editor Owen Dugan
Today Eleven Madison Park is one of the most vaunted restaurants on Earth. It holds a Wine Spectator Grand Award for its 4,900-selection list and has more stars than a Swifty Lazar party. The tasting menus last hours and are by turns contemplative and theatrical. Prices are in the stratosphere. When it opened in 1998, though, it, like the neighborhood at that time, was a bit humbler.
Restaurateur Danny Meyer fell in love with the space first (and the one next door where he installed Tabla, where the beloved Floyd Cardoz, who died from COVID-19, was chef). The stunning, high-ceilinged room had tall windows streaming light in at lunch. Chef Kerry Heffernan served elevated and comforting brasserie food. You might have a three-day short rib with potato puree or a meltingly tender piece of salmon. They wouldn’t have to twist your arm to get you to order the show-stopping chocolate soufflé. It wasn’t cheap, but it was a manageable splurge.
So when my friend who was photo editor of Wine Spectator announced in spring 2006 she was leaving, I took her there. The menu had changed. My first course was chestnut soup with chunks of lobster. There was a foie gras with sour cherries and a gelée of their juice, pine nuts and brioche. There was a savory crème brûlée with more foie. None of it seemed like Heffernan’s menu. I waved the server over: “Is Kerry still here?” “Um, no,” they said, leaning in conspiratorially. “We have this new guy. His name is Daniel Humm.”
I’d met Switzerland-born Humm when he was chef at Campton Place in San Francisco. He was intense; he seemed to not want to talk with food writers or speak English, both of which are understandable. While the general manager spoke, he showed his work by handing me photos of dishes. They were updated classics of French fine dining. Truite au bleu, for example. “Wow. Amazing. No one makes this,” I said. He just nodded.
They say New York hardens people. Humm might just be an exception. A major influence in his softening was GM Will Guidara—one of the warmest, most wide-open people in the business—with whom he took over the restaurant from Meyer, then expanded into other locations, like the NoMad a few blocks north and later in L.A.. Humm had a reputation for being very difficult in the kitchen; as he tells it, after one troubling incident with a younger chef, Guidara gave him an ultimatum: Cool it or we’re done. He cooled it.
Make no mistake: He’s still intense. You kind of have to be at that level. And last year, he bought out Guidara’s share in their Make It Nice group and their business partnership came to an end. But he seems to have a reached a state of contentment he had not shown before—like he realized that accomplishing something big could be its own reward.
A Grand Neighborhood SpotSenior editor James Molesworth
Among the restaurants I have been missing most during New York City’s lockdown is Nice Matin, on the Upper West Side. From celebrating birthdays to grabbing a quick lunch before heading off on a flight for work, I've been dining there regularly for 15 years. One of my favorite memories was after Hurricane Sandy hit New York and knocked out power in large swaths of the city. Nice Matin stayed open, however, and for several days it seemed as if they fed a lot more than just the immediate neighborhood.
Even today, after moving downtown, I still head back up to Nice Matin on most Tuesday nights for a regular dinner with my best friend, to enjoy the busy atmosphere, solid French/Mediterranean bistro fare and the Wine Spectator Grand Award–winning wine list. I can’t even begin to count the number of corks that have been pulled for me here over the years by wine director Aviram Turgeman and his always-professional team of sommeliers. I can’t wait for the dining room to reopen.
When in Rome …Senior editor Alison Napjus
As both a restaurant employee and a diner, I’ve had some truly exceptional restaurant experiences: Fabulous locations, Michelin stars, exotic ingredients and vintages from deep in the cellar. Yet when it came to selecting a favorite dining memory, my mind quickly turned to something far simpler: Da Giggetto, a neighborhood trattoria in central Rome.
Like many of the best discoveries, Da Giggetto was a recommendation from a local—the guide my friends and I engaged for a four-hour walking tour of Rome. We arrived to find the restaurant’s outdoor tables, which sit adjacent to the ancient Portico d’Ottavia ruins in Rome’s former Jewish ghetto, already bustling even though it was just past noon.
As the only Italian speaker in our group, I slipped into the restaurant to find the maître d’, surprised to see instead an Italian gentleman sitting right by the door, surrounded by huge bags of artichokes. I received a quick glance and a “buongiorno” before he returned to his work trimming the leaves and stems.
After we secured a table outside, what followed was a great meal of classic Roman dishes: carciofi alla giudia, deep-fried artichokes, the labor of love of the restaurant’s greeter; supplì al telefono, with long strands of melted cheese stretching from every bite of these rice croquettes; and steaming servings of creamy spaghetti cacio e pepe and bucatini alla carbonara, all washed down by a good quantity of local Roman wine and other Italian offerings. For a neighborhood spot, the wine list offers a surprisingly solid, concise grouping of bottlings from most of Italy’s wine regions—though the vino della casa also hits the spot.
Since that first visit in 2014, I’ve gone back to Da Giggetto every time I return to Rome, bringing newcomers with me and appreciating their pleasure in the discovery as much as I do the meal. The bells and whistles of fine dining are impressive, but there’s nothing like a restaurant with real heart.
A Storied Cellar, A Stunning ViewNapa bureau chief Kim Marcus
La Tour d’Argent had always been a dream of mine to visit. So it came to pass during a vacation to Paris in early December 2018 that my wife, Wendy, and I were lucky enough to get a reservation, though for lunch, not dinner. Given that the late autumn light would provide serene views from the restaurant’s perch beside the Seine in the city’s historic heart, we considered the time slot not a consolation, but an invitation to soak in the spectacular setting.
We enjoyed a long, leisurely lunch. Our entrée was sliced duck breast—duck being a specialty of the house—savory and rich with a sauce made from its jus, paired with a red Burgundy, a classic match. Later we toured the storied cellar, its wrought gates opening into a living museum of wines. La Tour d’Argent has held a Grand Award since 1986, and its collection (reputedly one of the biggest in the world) contains 450,000 bottles, the oldest dating to the late 18th century. They are ensconced in a dark warren of racks, replete with recesses and nooks filled not only with dusty bottles connected by cobwebs, but also with period artifacts and implements of the restaurant’s gustatory heritage.
The cellar tour was a thrilling finale. But I cherish another memory even more now. From our table, we could catch a view of Notre-Dame de Paris. This was mere months before the fire on April 15, 2019, that devastated the cathedral. Little did we know that this would be the last time we would see it intact, in all its glory and majesty. It remains a bittersweet remembrance of happier times in the City of Light.