Dining at a Distance is Still the Wise Thing to Do
PM Dining Critic Hal B. Klein reflects on four months of dining during the COVID-19 pandemic.
For the first six weeks of the stay-at-home order, I cooked nearly all of my meals. This was a significant shift from my pre-pandemic schedule, which had me out at least three or four days per week to work on reviews, check out new establishments, build lists and scout for stories. I love restaurants: I love (most of all) the people that work in them; I love experiencing chefs’ culinary passions; I love the thrill of exploring and finding tasty places I hadn’t yet been to; I love that I get to signal boost establishments that hadn’t received the attention they deserve. I also love to cook, and I thoroughly enjoyed deepening my connection with my home kitchen.
In May, I dipped back into writing about restaurant food. I found the pivot to meal kits by Baby Loves Tacos to be a smart choice (I also love the no-brag, community-focused work that owners Zach Shell, and Kat Muscianesi engage in). I picked up a kit from BLT’s Millvale location — its Bloomfield storefront since opened, too — and assembled a meal of tacos for a friend and me. Lovely, for sure, but even more I enjoyed the spread of meats, beans, vegetables and salsas I wove into meals for the rest of the week. One of the smartest moves right now for a restaurant owner is to jump into a hybrid model of menu design that offers immediate satisfaction in the form of an easy-to-assemble meal and lingering value in the way of component ingredients.
When the weather turned warmer, I organized takeout picnics, which I found to be an excellent opportunity for safely sharing restaurant food with friends. Have everyone bring their plateware, and take a few sets of tongs with you to avoid cross-contamination. It’s not quite the same as sitting around a Lazy Susan sharing everything, but it’s a nice bridge to when we can do that sort of thing again. I ordered from Sakura Teppanyaki and Sushi, which is one of my favorite Pittsburgh restaurants, and one that, if it isn’t already, should be on your radar, too. If you stick with Fenping Geng and Feng Gao’s Ningxia and Shaanxi cuisine, you’re in for a treat. My pals and I piled heaps of hand-pulled noodles topped with spicy pork and bok choy, juicy dumplings and, what might be a new favorite dish, Xinjiang-style chicken. It’s a luxurious, warmly spiced stew with potatoes, green peppers, star anise and whole chili peppers, and you mix in Xinjiang-style noodles. Yes, please.
A visit to Back To The Foodture meant another picnic in a nearby park. Eddie Barnz and Angel Randolph’s Pitcairn restaurant was one of my favorite finds this year. I was craving comfort, and Randolph’s wings and burgers hit the spot. My friends and I feasted on wing flavors such as tart and tangy salt & vinegar, piquant and spicy Barnzy and sweet, herbaceous basil. It confirmed something I already knew: Randolph prepares my favorite wings in Pittsburgh. Her burgers are among the best, too. One More Chance, smothered in sweet chili sauce and topped with pepper jack cheese and crispy onions, hits all the salty, fatty, just-a-little sweet marks.
In June, I had my first indoor meal in nearly four months at Scratch Food & Beverage in Troy Hill. Staff and ownership made it feel as if they were doing everything possible to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The next evening, I met some pals for a burger and a beer at one of my beloved burger and beer places, Burgh’ers in Lawrenceville (don’t let the unfortunate design of the building the restaurant is housed put you off; it’s a gem of a restaurant). Same thing, everyone was terrific. And both experiences were visceral reminders of the importance of restaurants as third spaces for me. I was catching up with friends, feeling taken care of and enjoying the craft of talented professionals cooking. In many ways, both experiences were lovely.
But I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was on the wrong end of a power dynamic. I found it hard to relax and have a good time knowing that the people serving us were putting their physical and mental health on the line to let us have a good time for a few hours. Worse, over the next few weeks, front-of-house workers shared stories with me about being spit on, shouted at, emailed copies of the Constitution, and more because they asked customers to follow some simple decency rules. Nobody should have to put themselves at risk, or even suppress their worries for a shift, to earn a paycheck.
As I draft this, restaurants and bars had to close for indoor service, and outdoor dining and drinking were allowed only with strict limits. We need to establish a system that gives additional financial support for service industry workers, restaurant owners, farmers, ranchers and everyone else involved in the restaurant industry so that these businesses, and the people that work in them, can make it through this crisis healthy and safe.
I thought my Dining at a Distance series would end with my visit to Back To The Foodture. But, for the time being, when I’m not cooking in my kitchen, I think that’s how I’ll continue to do most of my restaurant dining.