It’s early February and I’m sad. Yet again I’m walking into a restaurant to eat alone. I don’t have the vast network of plus-ones to share meals with all the time, and my wife and I don’t have the money to constantly pay babysitters to watch our two daughters. While my sadness is pretty silly because I’m a privileged food writer who actually gets to eat restaurant food all the time, it is my sadness. I tell myself it’s valid.
I’m at Penny Quarter, the all-day café opened by Bobby Heugel and James Beard-winner Justin Yu. My wife had already proclaimed the former’s Anvil to be her favorite bar in the city, and I had been bowled over a few times by the duo’s Squable, which had started service a couple of months earlier. I’m here to review Penny Quarter, excited to order a multitude of plates, enjoy a drink or two, and breathe in the surroundings of this tidy place where millennials murmur over funky natural wines. I just wish I wasn’t alone, but whatever; I decide to sit at the bar and let the night linger. Whatever plates catch my interest, I’m there. Just get me something red, preferably on the darker side.
There’s a dish of sweet peas and chorizo mashed together by a Lone Star-beer batter into fritters. They surround a shallow pool of tzatziki painted with ground black pepper and some drizzled olive oil. I start with my fork, but I ask the bartender if he suggests eating by finger. He does, and it takes less than eight minutes to finish the plate while knocking back a glass. More plates will come, conversations will continue, and wine will be consumed further, but time begins to escape me. For an hour, two hours, I’m lost in Penny Quarter as my brain begins to figure out what this whole place is about. I forget that I’m alone because, really, I’m not.
The story publishes in early March. For two weeks people can read and react to it by taking their own multi-hour excursion. Then the world stops. Soon, Penny Quarter closes temporarily and, months later, permanently.
Again, I need to make this very clear: I have no reason to complain. I had a good 2020, and I'm aware my privilege helped. Most of all, I didn’t get seriously ill and didn’t lose anyone I love to the virus. I didn’t lose my job or get furloughed, either. I’m thankful.
But—and yes, I get it, that’s a big but—part of who I am is experiencing people, food, and drink. We always poked fun at my dad for chatting too much with servers, but that became me. The curious questions about pork preparation, the 14-second educations on French wine valleys, and the rare moment when I puncture someone’s shell and find out a little about their upbringing are lost when you can’t sit in a dining room. Well, fine. I could still talk to people standing far away and through a mask while hurriedly grabbing my bag of food. But you can’t read a face that way. That memory will always come with a desire to get more. That’s what 2020 was for me: the year when I just desired—to the point where I constantly wanted to yell at people who refused to wear masks—to get more.
Like all of us, I took what I could get. There are still countless things from 2020 that I’ve stored away—moments and experiences that have defined the existence that began right around the time my Penny Quarter review ran.
For instance, one Sunday I stopped in Saigon Pagolac and picked up a whole fish with ingredients for spring rolls. About an hour later, my then-three-year-old daughter smiled while daintily fitting a carrot, a cucumber, some lettuce, and fish meat into damp rice paper. She made about four spring rolls that evening, each better than the last.
At the same table some weeks later, my wife and I sighed with the deepest of nostalgic love for the bo ssam dinner I purchased from UB Preserv. It connected us to our friends in New York, the family we left a few years ago to start our journey in Texas.
Speaking of UB Preserv, my wife bought me a grill as a move-in present. Not long after, I heated up perfect ribeye steaks for my daughter’s birthday, using Chris Shepherd’s blunt instructions as gospel. Those directions worked. My daughter is 4 and her favorite food is ribeye. She’s a Texan.
My fridge is stocked with dry vermouth, sweet vermouth, homemade eggnog, and all kinds of simple syrups, thanks to a pandemic-fueled interest in mixology, partly inspired by great bartenders and drink pros like Kristine Nguyen, Linda Salinas, and Justin Vann. Man, our food and beverage workers can inspire.
One night in April, I tell my wife I was getting three pounds of BB’s crawfish and eating the whole damn platter. And I did. A month later, I finally try Kaiser Lashkari’s fried chicken from Himalaya and declare it my favorite in town. Then I have Chris Williams’s chicken from Lucille’s and think about that declaration again. Then I have Ronnie Killen’s chicken from Killen's and have to revisit all of it. No food spoke to me this year like fried chicken.
There was the night I brought home a bunch of those H-E-B heat-and-eat meals. In one night, I ate from Cherry Block, Coltivare, Brennan’s of Houston, and The Hay Merchant. That was a mighty fine dinner.
In April, I braised pork in milk. In June, I spatchcocked a chicken. In November, I roasted leg of lamb with a ridiculous stuffing. On a few Sunday mornings, I flipped buttermilk pancakes with my daughters.
I cooked too many quesadillas with sour cream and Frank’s Hot Sauce for lunch. Every time my daughters requested salmon for dinner, I came prepared with chili oil for dipping. I made some killer breakfast tacos with Tatemó corn tortillas and Shepherd’s pork and smoked bacon sausage. The last meal at my old apartment in the Heights was a couple of tacos from Cantina Barba; the first meal at my new house in Westbury was a bagel from New York Deli & Coffee Shop.
I can count on two hands the times since March that I sat in a restaurant dining room to eat. Most of the time I took my food home, and a handful of times I ate outside at a patio. There was spending time over natural wines with my wife at Theodore Rex, watching my daughters clean pork ribs at a pink picnic table outside Fainmous BBQ, and enjoying our first lunch in our new neighborhood al fresco at Watershed.
When I eat at a restaurant I allow everything to come my way. Give me the rush of dinner service at its peak, the free-flying humor of bartenders getting the work done, and the way a well-timed drink pour and plate arrival can slide in with the rhythm of the music and chatter of a packed dining room. I want to feel a restaurant at its best, if only to tell everyone about it. I need to tell everyone about it, and in 2020, I didn’t get to do that as often. But what I lost of that, I gained in so many other things, among them the opportunity to connect with my past through a one-off take-home tribute, the chance to learn with my children as they met new cultures through food, and the ability to hear hurt and frustration from so many working in the hospitality industry. Thank goodness I could share that, too.