Eating Las Vegas – The High Water Mark

Image(Mutual admiration society)

Ah…the end of summer. Traditionally when we would be turning in the final copy for EATING LAS VEGAS The 52 Essential Restaurants.

But not this year. This year there is no joy in Mudville. This year the Mighty Las Vegas has struck out. What we once saw as invincible, unconquerable, un-defeatable, has been laid so low as to be in need of resuscitation, not inspection and dissection.

No way can we justify rating or ranking restaurants according to their quality this year. That so many of them are open at all is a testament to the fortitude of cooks, chefs, owners, staff and everyone connected with our hospitality industry.

Even places we’ve disdained in the past now have our undying respect. This is no time for poncy snobs and their persnickety-ness. Effete, elitist, edicts should not elicit during this era of almost endless enervation.

Put another way: it would be exhausting and unfair to critique any retail business struggling to survive in this climate. Our heart’s not in it, nor should it be.

Right now it’s all about survival, and even though a remarkable number of places have re-opened, it’s too soon to tell which ones will make it.

If I had to describe my prediction for the future of local eateries, I’d call it cautiously optimistic. There seems to be real support out there for the neighborhood joints who have weathered the storm (so far). And interest is high in the places on the drawing boards, ready to spring to life in the coming weeks: Main Street Provisions, Good Pie, Yu-Or-Mi Sushi, all have created real buzz, and the public’s appetite for going out seems to be increasing every week. Letting the bars re-open is also a big plus which will boost the business of many. (Restaurants need a lively bar just as much as a bar needs a lively bar.)

The Strip is another beast entirely, as the fates of so many of our favorite cookshops hang in the balance these days, as the beached whales of Las Vegas Boulevard South struggle to find their footing, right the ship, and regain their sea legs. (Mix. That. Metaphor!)

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As of this writing, 15 of our 52 Essential Restaurants remain closed. Some are gone for good (goodbye Twist by Pierre Gagnaire, Hatsumi, Sage…), others hang in the balance (Le Cirque? Picasso? Robuchon?), while a remarkable number have bounced back (even at 50% capacity) and are doing booming business on the days they’re open (usually Wed.-Sun.).

We’ve also gained new appreciation for some places we’d written off in the past (Costa di Mare), and developed an infatuation for a newcomers (ELIO, Letty’s, Raku Toridokoro, Osteria Fiorella) whose menus have knocked us out at every meal we’ve had. (If we were doing a 52 Essential list this year, all of them would certainly be on it, as would ShangHai Taste, Saga , Japaneiro, and Big B’s Texas BBQ.)

Throughout the summer, beginning in early June right through this past weekend, we hit dozens of restaurants, on and off the Strip, and usually found them teaming with customers. Sure, the mask thing makes everyone awkward, and early on, the feelings of discomfort was palpable between customers and staff, but over time these things have faded…even if the unease hasn’t disappeared completely.

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Looking back, it’s now a safe bet to say the publication of our 8th Edition of Eating Las Vegas was the high-water mark of Las Vegas’s gastronomic scene — not the book itself, but  everything that came before it, everything it represented. Thirty years of progress, thousands of hands working for three decades to bring better food and drink to the High Mojave Desert, in a place where once no one thought it possible. My own personal odyssey of eating, studying and writing about this scene led me and others to our event that evening, and it seemed like nothing but blue skies, handmade pizzas and top-flight champagne was ahead for everyone.

But of course it wasn’t. There was an iceberg looming ahead no one saw coming.

It was a grand night, made all the more possible by chefs like John Arena, Chris Decker, Ismaele Romano, James Trees and Vincent Rotolo pitching in to feed us all so well. Toasts were made; speeches were given; babies were kissed; books were signed. At the end of it all was a lively discussion panel with Kim Foster, Eric Gladstone and Trees weighing in with humor and insight on the future of the Las Vegas dining scene. Little did we know how wrong we would all be proven, only two weeks later.

At the top of the page you’ll see us with Paul — a genial fellow whose last name we can’t recall. Paul has bought every edition of ELV going back to 2011. He and his charming wife came, listened us bloviate, and waited for the discussions to end so we could sign all of his books. One thing led to another, multiple distractions intruded, and before we knew it, the evening was over and Paul and spouse had left without us making good on our promise.

No matter, we thought at the time, we’ll catch up with Paul _____ soon enough. Maybe sometime this year in a restaurant, or maybe at next year’s release party.

How foolish of us to take it for granted — because there may never be another book signing party — because there may never be another Las Vegas like there was on February 27, 2020.

Paul, if you’re out there, I apologize. I’m sorry I didn’t sign your books and I’m sorry I didn’t get your last name so I could hunt you down and return the favor.

Peak Vegas had been achieved that day and none of us knew it. But I’m still here with pen in hand, Paul, ready to be of service, if ever again you need me.

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Stick to Food

Image(Aging Boomer confronts his mortality)

Ed. note: The following is a trip down memory lane. It has very little to do with food.

When you hit your sixties you start looking backwards.

There are more miles behind you than in front, so it’s natural (I guess) to take stock of all the places you’ve been rather than where you’re going.

And as we all know, where we’re headed is a terminus without return.

Looking back is something I’ve been doing a lot of lately, and nothing makes me do it more than when someone tells me to “stick to food.”

The way these comments arise is invariably the same: I venture an opinion on social media about some issue (Covid-19, climate change, Tom Brady. George Floyd, potholes in my neighborhood…) and someone on Facebook or Twitter (or occasionally here) doesn’t agree with me. What they’re thinking to themselves is, “I only know this dude as a food critic/Las Vegas restaurant expert/reviewer and here he is opining on Trump or foreign policy or racism in America and why the hell doesn’t he STAY IN HIS LANE and stick to letting me know where I should eat?”

Since they only know me in one limited way, they weaponize what they think is my only area of expertise and turn it into an insult. And on some crude level, it works, at least from their limited perspective.

“Stick to food” always amuses me, not only as a juvenile insult, but also because it is so easy to toss at a person who writes about food…as if that’s the only thing they’re qualified to think about. Any red-blooded male will tell you food and sex are the two things every man is highly qualified to think about….along with the New England Patriots and how to avoid household chores.

al franken fact GIF by Election 2016

“Sticking to food” is easy for dudes. Food is fascinating, but most men think about it in a “me eat now” sort of way. Face it: heterosexual men are the most boring creatures on earth, so any attempt we make to discuss anything outside of food and Mr. Happy should be encouraged, not criticized. Just a thought, ladies.

And goddammit, if a hillbilly like Taylor Swift is allowed to weigh in on white supremacy, then a food writer should be given leeway to opine on something besides the saltiness of the shrimp. The only thing most men want Taylor Swift to weigh in on is their face.

Things get dicier for us less famous folks of dubious repute. We’re supposed to establish a rapport with our readers, stick to the script, not make people think, and most certainly don’t disagree with them about something they KNOW TO BE TRUE.

Regardless, when someone tells me to stick to food, here are the things that race through my mind:

I survived the 60s, 70s, and 80s, and have tales to tell about each decade. (The 70s were the WORST….the 80s were when I was at my worst.)

Up until this worldwide coronavirus shutdown, the Vietnam War was the dumbest thing I ever lived through.

Once you’ve survived it, Richard Nixon, and Watergate (not to mention Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and Lewinskygate) you learn to have a healthy skepticism about anything government does…not to mention when not to ejaculate on a woman’s dress.

youtube smile GIF by Rosanna Pansino

This doesn’t mean government (at all levels) isn’t capable of doing great things. I work in government (at the municipal level) and know very well what good it can do for its citizens. But huge social experiments involving anything but road building, public safety, utilities, or fighting wars are not its forte.

When someone tells me to stick to food, it invariably makes me remember everywhere I’ve lived and traveled, and to quote Mark Twain:

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

I refer to myself as a Connecticut Yankee, but I was educated in Florida, Tennessee and Kentucky, and my family has lived in Georgia since the 1970s…so I have more than a passing acquaintance with the customs, food, and failings of the the West, the Northeast and the Deep South.

4 Ways Billboard Woman of the Year Taylor Swift Changed Country ...(Come sit right over here)

People are fond of calling Nashville a “cool city” these days, but when I went to college there it was a racist backwater. Plus, country fucking music, need I say more?

My love-hate relationship with the South runs deep. The people are friendly, the women beautiful, and the food is to die for, literally. But the politics are as fetid as a Savannah swamp in summer.

Louisville, Kentucky was kinder and gentler, and gave me my first job as a public defender — cutting my teeth as a trial lawyer and handling hundreds of cases from capital murders to minor misdemeanors. Four years in those courtrooms taught me lessons I put to good use for the next three decades. Having a jury come back and say “not guilty” to a packed courtroom is the second greatest feeling a man will ever have.

As a young boy, I wanted to be a baseball player; as a young man, I wanted to be an actor.  Not having the talent for either broke my heart. Baseball was my first heartbreak. As they used to say when I took the field, “That Curtas kid may be small, but at least he’s slow.”

My mother wanted me to be a piano player; I failed miserably there, too. Ditto, playing the guitar. It helps to be coordinated (and possess some manual dexterity) if you’re trying to learn instruments that require both. In that sense, I’m no different from the 95% of us who fail at music and sports (which would be 95% of everyone), I just learned my lessons harder and quicker than most.

Four times in my life I’ve tried to learn French. Flunked it twice in college. Finally gave up when I was in my 40s. Even now, after having been to France ten times, I’m barely past the bonjour! and s’il vous plait stage. Thankfully, the French have always taken pity on me, and more of them now speak English, so it’s easier to hide my shame these days.

french GIF

Three ex-wives taught me a lot about marriage, the hard way. Handling divorce cases was a wonderful remedy to cure my belief in the fundamental goodness of the human race.

By the time I started writing about food (in 1994, in Las Vegas), I had already practiced law for seventeen years in three different states. Despite appearances, it was not because I was thrown out of any of them.

I was a helluva criminal trial lawyer and gave it up to do business/commercial law, probably to please my father. Business law paid the bills for twenty-five years, but wasn’t nearly as sexy as a biker bar homicide trial with everyone in the courtroom in flack jackets.

You start out as a wide-eyed product of the 60s  — a  young attorney, wanting to help the underprivileged, protect the Constitution, change society for the better, cure poverty, etc.. Twenty years later, you find yourself always representing one half of a bad business deal, with both sides competing to see who can be the greediest motherfucker. Good times.

Complicated business disputes pale, however, next to rubbing shoulders with a guy who likes to seal people’s eyes shut with Krazy Glue before he rapes them. (Yeah, you read that right.) His name was Ed Wagner and he was a peach of a fellow, just ask the four victims who couldn’t see him. Nothing says “doing the lord’s work” like defending serial sex offenders.

One of my sub-specialties in this genre involved representing a series of pedophiles. (You read that right, too.)  These were not cases for the faint of heart or stomach. The Vatican has nothing on this cowboy when it comes to getting nose deep in others’ sexual perversions.

Speaking of perversions, porn stars were also clients of mine. The tales they told would curl your hair. Some of those stories have gone with Marilyn Chambers to her grave. R.I.P. Marilyn, since you had so little of it in your lifetime.

In between I did personal injury plaintiff’s work, divorce, real estate, contract litigation, you name it. No one will ever call me the world’s greatest attorney, but there’s not much you can slip by, or shock me with, at this point in my career.

Don’t talk to me about gun control until you’ve been to an autopsy.

Having survived two very depressing periods in my life, after divorces bookended the 1990s (when I smoked, popped, snorted or swallowed anything put in front of me), I also consider myself something of an expert on being your own worst enemy. My aim was never better than when pointing a large caliber character flaw at my own foot.

There’s an old saying about becoming more conservative as you get older, but for me it’s been the opposite — although the liberal media’s hysteria about everything from Trump’s latest brain fart to the pandemic has me questioning my loyalty to institutions like the New York Times. And if I never see a television newscast again, it’ll be too soon…no matter how hot the weather girl is.

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This is just age talking, but after following politics for decades, one gets to the point where the ideological clashes seem like a young person’s sport. At a certain point, you long for a toothsome bite of pasta amplified by the perfect cheese. Or whiling away the morning in a Parisian cafe, sipping strong coffee over a good book. Or viewing a Mediterranean sunset from a mountain in Italy (above). Anything but witnessing another never-ending political wrestling match.

If you look at my home library, you’ll find an inordinate number of nonfiction, travel and cookbooks, followed by various social and political science tomes. And for a card-carrying pacifist who has never owned a gun, there are more military books than I can count. Anytime you’d like to discuss the finer points of Blücher’s assault at Waterloo, the US Navy at Guadalcanal, or the Second Battle of the Somme, ring me up.

I used to be a movie buff. Used to go to at least one a week. Have dozens of books about movies and actors. Now we’re lucky if we hit a theater four times a year. These days it looks like we may never go again.

If I hadn’t become a food critic I think I would’ve become a drama critic (failed actor and all that), or some kind of writer. But I’m a food writer because I’ve been obsessed with food since I was twelve, and when you get right down to it, the only way to get good at something is to be obsessed with it.

Image(Wine lists are more fun to wrestle with than systemic racism)

To quote two of my faves: “There is no love sincerer than the love of food” (G.B. Shaw), and “Food is life itself; the rest is parsley.” (A. Richman)

Warren Zevon said enjoy every sandwich……and so you should.

Twenty years ago I flirted with the idea of giving up the law and becoming a full-time writer. I knew I could do it as well as anyone, but a quick survey of the landscape showed me I’d be working twice as hard for half the dough (I was making then) in a dying profession. So I stuck with the law and kept my writing going as what they now call a “side hustle.”

The irony is, of course, that two decades later I am known much more as a food writer than a lawyer. This fact never ceases to amuse my accountant, once he finishes weeping over my tax return.

These are the things that run through my mind whenever anyone tells me to stay in my gastronomic lane, as if I’ve never had a life outside of it. All they’re really doing is exposing how little they know me. (It’s also kind of a compliment, I suppose.)

They know me only one way, and that’s okay. The very way all of us present ourselves publicly these days is predicated upon snap judgments and visceral reactions. Now everyone has a public persona (remember: only a select few used to) and there is no time for reflection, for research, for the slow satisfaction of actually learning about a person or an idea.

Oscar Wilde said the truth is rarely pure and never simple, and truer words have never been ignored so completely.

This is where our world is now. So much information, so much access, so much ignorance. One of the great(?) things about the pandemic shutdown is how it focused Baby Boomers on how little time we have left, and how little we count anymore. Society has become over-sensitized to everything and common sensical about nothing. If it isn’t easily digestible, no one wants to chew on it.

We Boomers have to come to grips with this: our selfish time has passed; the world is no longer ours; the “me generation” has become the meh generation. We have been eclipsed by the internet, social media and groupthink , and it took the Pandemic Panic of 2020 to drive the point home.

Being a lawyer for forty years has taught me to assume little and question a lot. You look at things from a contra perspective, ever suspicious of the low-hanging intellectual fruit. There are no easy answers; nothing is as black and white as it appears. People who hate Donald Trump (including my wife) don’t want to hear this, anymore than those who would lionize George Floyd. The easy road taken, the current trend followed, the popular thought parroted, will always earn you applause. But making yourself feel good about what you think is not a way to make you think.

Not conforming to the facile or the fatuous is why I will never stick solely to food, and anyone who suggests I should can stick it where the sun don’t shine.

Image(While you’re solving the world’s problems, I’ll be in Venice)

 

The Covid Diaries – Vol. 9 – The List

Image(Puck’s peeps knock it out of the park)

Day 50, May 5 – Where We Ate

The Great Cessation is winding down. What began in a fit of panic will end in a cloud of failure and despair.

Lives have been ruined, businesses crushed, hopes dashed….but the media and government did its job: whipping everyone into a frenzy so they would buy into the ham-fisted, blunt instrument approach to public health — one akin to “we have to destroy the village in order to save it.”

Both (media and government) are better at getting into messes than getting out of them, so picking up the pieces will be left to the citizens.

And there will be pieces aplenty: 30 million unemployed; an economy in shambles; poverty, disease, murder hornets, you name it.

Las Vegas will be hit hardest of all, just like it was by the Great Recession. (If you don’t believe in Karma, you might consider these double-whammies, twelve years apart, have followed 20 years of unprecedented growth. Yup, Vegas will end up paying double for all the unbridled prosperity it enjoyed between 1989-2009.)

But enough depressive pontification, We are here to celebrate the places that have fed us so well over the past six weeks.

As you might guess, we didn’t let some little old Covid-19 shutdown interfere too much with our gustatory gallivanting. The biggest issue on a daily basis was lunch. Only a few places are open for takeout, so most days it was homemade sandwiches, fruit and cheese brought to work. (I’ve actually lost a couple pounds.)

Dinner found more places open, but even then, we ordered out far less than our habit. (In peak season, The Food Gal® and I easily hit 10+ restaurants a week.)

When we went out, more often than not, we brought our own table and chairs and ate on the sidewalk outside the restaurant with our friends, Deanna and Greg. (They got stranded here, from their Boise, Idaho base, on March 15 and have been toughing it out by working at home and helping us relieve the boredom.)

Occasionally, a restaurant would wave us inside and serve us like the old days — this helped everyone feel as if a little sanity had been restored to a world turned upside down. (These restaurants will not be named for fear the Covid Gestapo is only too eager to hate-shame (or worse) anyone who doesn’t share their misery.)

Dinner was confined to far fewer options than you might expect (good pizza, amazingly was not in abundance throughout this crisis), but if you wanted to drive, lots of quality is/was out there. Very little of it compared to what those same restaurants could turn out at full throttle, but at least you knew a real chef was busting her/his ass to feed you.

We are listing the restaurants in the order in which their takeout menu most closely approximated the quality of what they do when firing on all cylinders. But there are no losers here. Even the most mediocre meal was savored with the appreciation of Lucius Beebe contemplating the nesting habits of a recently-devoured woodcock.

At the end of The List, we’ll have a few choice words for people who continue to accuse us of criticizing the shutdown only because we only want to get back to eating in fancy restaurants.

The List:

Raku

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Both The Food Gal and I forgot our anniversary (on April 29). That is how soul-deadening this has been. Endo-san and Haruko-san bailed me(us?) out big time by bringing their “A” game — from bento boxes to grilled Japanese wagyu — for a meal that, if you closed your eyes, was a dead ringer for any other of the dozens we’ve had there.

Kaiseki Yuzu

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Las Vegas’s most beautiful bento — because, if you need to be reminded, the Japanese perfected takeout food when Americans were still living in log cabins.

Player’s Locker by Wolfgang Puck

Image(Chinois Chicken Salad never goes out of style)

All hail to the Wolfgang Puck Restaurant Group! It has the horsepower to do what few restaurateurs anywhere could: bring a murderer’s row (at top of page) of its local chefs together (at its Summerlin location) to produce an ever-changing menu of Puck classics (above), as well as dishes from each of its six local restaurants. Stars like Matthew Hurley, Kamel Guechida and Nicole Erle, the are producing food, bread, and desserts as eye-popping and fork-dropping as any restaurant in America over these past six weeks. With all that talent at the stoves, how could they not?

Tres Cazuelas

We ate on the sidewalk, but the food would suffer very little if taken home. Braised dished always travel well.

Lamaii

Image(Tangy Thai needs terrific Riesling)

Another sidewalk dinner — straight out of Styrofoam — but one that knocked our socks off.

Café Breizh

Image(Napoleon would be proud)

A lifesaver each week, turning out French pastries and breads worthy of Pierre Gatel’s “Pastry Chef of the Year 2019” award.

The Black Sheep

Image(No table? No problem. We bring our own!)

Jamie Tran now owns the restaurant herself, and herself and a helper are staying strong and producing a truncated menu of her standards that are as tasty as she is adorable.

DE Thai Kitchen

Thai restaurants seem to be weathering the storm better than pizza joints. DE Thai hasn’t missed a beat.

Saga Pastry + Sandwich

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I love this place — even if they can’t get those beautiful tiny, sweet, Scandinavian shrimp for their smorgasbord sandwich right now. It’s one of only two reasons that can get me to the restaurant black hole that is Henderson/Green Valley. I love it, but I also fear for its future.

Ohlala French Bistro

Richard Terzaghi is doing it all himself, and what he’s doing is doing his French tradition proud.

Sin City Smokers

Ribs and a pork sammie blew me away the other day on an episode of Las Vegas Food To Go.

L & L Hawaiian Barbecue

Image(The Burly Boyz take on Hawaiian ‘cue)

Best Kaluha pig I’ve had in Vegas. My comments on Spam Musubi are best left for a time when I’m not struggling to say only nice things.

China Mama

I dream about their xiao long bao and Dan Dan noodles. All of the proteins here — from boiled fish to lamb with cumin — are stellar as well. The fish dishes do not travel well, however.

PublicUs

Another lifesaver. Has become our morning go-to for coffee. The tips we leave often exceed the size of the bill…and they’re worth it.

Locale Italian Kitchen

Nicole Brisson has left the building. Before she left, she cooked us one helluva meal.

Rooster Boy Cafe

We would frequent here more often if Sonia El-Nawal didn’t have her hands full servicing customers who can’t get enough of her catered dinners and superb pastries.

Delices Gourmands French Bakery & Cafe

Image(Palm tree perfection)

I like Pierre Gatel’s baguettes better at Cafe Breizh (by the width of a mille-feuille layer), but the bread selection (and pastries) here is a close second on all other fronts, and I would walk three miles for one of their palmiers…and have!

Kung Fu Thai & Chinese

Any place that’s been in business since 1974 is doing a lot of things right. Just the spot when you’re craving some cashew chicken or Yen Ta Fo soup.

7th and Carson

Still one of Vegas’s most boffo burgers. So good we were fighting over the last bite.

Yummy Rice

Simple little rice bowls studded with veggies or proteins. Normally, they serve these in super-heated clay pots – Hong Kong style. Now, the rice caramelizes on the bottom of cheap, to-go aluminum.  Something is lost but the bowls are still damn tasty. A Food Gal® favorite.

Weiss Deli & Bakery

Image(Righteous pastrami on rye)

Jewish food and Las Vegas go together like craps and born-again Christians. Our best bagels are made by an Italian. Go Figure. Weiss is the closest we have to real, big city deli. Bagels, lox, pastrami, rugelach, the works — they have it all and all of it is worth traveling to Sunset and Sunset for.

Valley Cheese and Wine

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Three weeks in a row we’ve headed to the far corners of Horizon Ridge to grab some cheese and wine here. We never fail to blow at least a couple of Benjamins, and we’ll spend twice as much if means keeping this little gem in business.

Ocha Thai 

Always a fave. Always there when we need a Thai fix.

Now, some final thoughts.

Many times over the last six weeks we’ve been accused (by self-righteous supporters of the shutdown) of being opposed to it solely because it prevents us from eating in fancy restaurants.

Here’s a typical (but by no means uncommon) barb tossed my way by those who, over the past month or so, have decided to really, really care about old, sick people dying in hospitals thousands of miles away:

So, just to be clear, if you’ve had COVID -19, have it, or lost somebody to it, John wants you to know that you’re nothing more than an inconvenience to his dining agenda. [B}efore they died, did you tell them to their face that you were glad they were dying, because it meant you could dine out sooner?

My response on Facebook was a little blunt: I told the writer (politely) to go fuck himself.

A more nuanced response would have been as follows:

The only thing I’ve obsessed about during this debacle has been how brutal it has been on working people in the hospitality business. Whether I ever eat another foie gras torchon has been the furthest thing from my mind.

I eat out now because I love restaurants and restaurant people — love supporting them, love watching them thrive. My devotion is like someone who loves a sports team — it is unconditional. But it is also different. Because every day I evince my passion with my time, my appetite, my prose and my paycheck. My life has been a full one; I will eat well no matter what happens.

What I’ve also realized from fifty years of obsessing about food is how important restaurants are to the soul of a community. We are social beings. Gathering to eat and drink has been inculcated into our DNA since time immemorial. You can no more prevent people from talking, rubbing elbows, sharing food, or passing the platter than you can keep the sun from shining.

The idea that you should take a society and shut it down to keep people from breathing on each other is the dumbest thing since the Vietnam War. Unlike the war, however, this policy will ruin tens of millions of lives across the globe.  It is those lives who deserve our sympathy, not people you don’t know — people you’re only pretending to care about because it makes it easier to disguise your fear and makes you feel better about yourself.

You’re right about one thing, though. Because of your irrational fear(s), the Golden Age of American Restaurants is over. The way has been cleared for soulless, antiseptic, corporate eateries to dominate our landscape for years to come. But for as long as I can still chew, I going to fight you and your fright, and put my money where my mouth is to keep places like those above alive.

Image(Big eye tuna from Player’s Locker)