What a cad I used to be, constantly ditching the bistro that had opened only four months ago for the week-old trattoria with an even dewier complexion, callously trading in the yellowtail sashimi that had been so good to me for a hot tamale of unproven charms. Then, a few years back, the restaurant Barbuto and I settled down. It's bliss. She knows my heart, knows my drill: a gin martini to begin, a seasonal salad for my appetizer, the roasted chicken after.
And I know her. If the weather's nice, a breeze will blow in from the West Village streets that her retractable walls open onto. The kale that she serves me will be sparingly dressed. And the breast meat? As plump and tender as it was the last time around and the dozen times before that.
We don't have fireworks, not this late in the game. But we have a rhythm. Sometimes that's better.
What I'm saying is that I'm a regular there, as I am at the Breslin, whose lamb burger is as true to me as I am to it; at Empellón Taqueria, where I never stray from the fish tempura tacos, which never let me down; at Szechuan Gourmet, where I don't even glance at a menu.
I don't have to.
I'm no monogamist, that's clear. More of a polygamist, but I dote on my sister wives. I've come to see that the broccolini isn't always greener on the other side of Houston Street, and I'm here to sing what's too seldom sung: the joys of familiarity. The pleasures of intimacy. The virtues of staying put.
What you have with a restaurant that you visit once or twice is a transaction. What you have with a restaurant that you visit over and over is a relationship.
The fashionable script for today's food maven doesn't encourage that sort of bonding, especially not in a city with New York's ambition and inexhaustible variety. Here you're supposed to dash to the new Andrew Carmellini brasserie before anybody else gets there; be the first to taste ABC Cocina's guacamole; advertise an opinion about the Massaman curry at Uncle Boons while others are still puzzling over the fugitive apostrophe. Snap a photo. Tweet it. Then move on. There's always something else. Always virgin ground.
For years, I was dedicated to exploring it, by dint of my duty as The Times' restaurant critic. I was a paid philanderer. It was exhilarating. It was exhausting.
And it wasn't necessarily the best course. I'd think back to my pre-critic days, in Rome, and to the handful of restaurants I kept circling around to. The servers and owners there would exult when I walked through the door, because they understood how to make me happy and they could have a conversation with me different from the ones they had with newcomers, a conversation built on shared history and reciprocal trust, a dialogue between honest-to-goodness friends. I wasn't special. But I was special to them.
I'd think, too, of my food-loving father's approach to dining out. When he found a place with a few dishes and a few servers he adored, and when those servers reciprocated his affection, he stopped looking around. Called off the search. He understood what I've relearned these last few years, with Barbuto and the others: the smiles you get from hosts, hostesses and bartenders who know you are entirely unlike the smiles from ones who are just meeting you.
They're less theatrical, less stilted, warmer by countless degrees.
Regulars matter to a restaurant. Though the newcomers drawn there by reviews or Yelp chatter can keep it packed for a while, the familiar faces help it go the distance. That's why some of those fusty, pricey Italian haunts on the Upper East Side outlast the trend-conscious efforts of this "Top Chef" alumnus or that darling of the culinary scribes. They've put extra energy into cultivating a steady clientele, turning themselves into clubs, into tribes.
"It's the only way to do it," said Robert Bohr, one of the owners of the new restaurant Charlie Bird, in SoHo, which is designed, as are Barbuto and so many other restaurants in that general area of downtown Manhattan, to be a repeat refuge for neighborhood folks who like to drop in impulsively. A few tables are informally tagged for such "walk-ins," as they're called in the business, and the menu accommodates snacking as well as feasting.
Bohr said that he had worked at what he called "destination restaurants," and that while first- and second-timers might keep them humming at peak hours during peak stretches, "it's regulars who support you on off days, in bad weather, during times of the night that aren't prime times."
In return, regulars at most restaurants get extra consideration: a glass of sparkling wine that wasn't asked for, a dessert that just appears, a promotion to the head of the waiting list when the place is full. There's a practical, unemotional reason to join the frequent-flier club. Perks accrue.
Bohr noted that you can make requests of a restaurant where you're a regular that you'd never make - and that might not be indulged - elsewhere. Because he has lunch as often as once a week at ABC Kitchen, he can place his order the second he sits down and say, "I want to be out in 25 minutes."
"They're welcoming to that," he said, because he's been loyal and he'll be back.
And that's why Charlie Bird doesn't flinch when Stephen Carlin, an investment banker, pops in unannounced at 6 p.m. with his wife and their two children, both under 4 years old. Just 3 1/2 months into its existence, he has already been there some 15 times, he told me.
"They make me feel like family," he said.
Regulars make a restaurant feel a certain way, too.
"It has such a huge impact on the morale of the staff, to see people falling in love with what you're doing," said Eamon Rockey, the general manager of the new restaurant Betony, in Midtown Manhattan.
The diner who comes back again and again is a validation, a vindication. "It changes the culture of a restaurant," Rockey said, explaining that managers and servers become intent not on razzle-dazzle but on reading diners' minds, anticipating their needs, soothing them.
That's precisely what I value. I'm not a regular at the Breslin, in Midtown, for one of the curtained booths that I'm usually ushered to, the prime real estate that devoted patrons often get. I'm not a regular at Perla, an Italian favorite of mine in Greenwich Village, for the free appetizer sometimes put on the table.
I'm a regular for the solace. The peace. A new restaurant entails stress: Which of these main courses looks like the best one? What did the reviewers say? Is this table in a louder spot than others? How come no one warned me about the noise?
When you're a regular, you're always forewarned, prepared: For the decibels. For the lighting. For the menu. The one at Szechuan Gourmet, in Midtown, is as vast as a continent, but I'm never lost. The crispy lamb with cumin, the wok-fried prawns, the pork dumplings in roasted chile oil. These are the landmarks. These stand out.
And I fit in. There's Simon, the unofficial dean of Szechuan Gourmet's servers, who always takes care of me there. He arches an eyebrow if my partner, Tom, and I deviate from our usual order, and sometimes makes the executive decision to overrule us and bring a dish we neglected to request. He's earned that right.
He's met my father. He's met Tom's sister. He's met Tom's nephews. He's visibly tickled by that. We're tickled in return, and so we bring in more relatives, more friends. It's like taking them home.
To be a regular is to insist on something steady in a world and a life with too many shocks, too much loss. The week can go off the rails. The month can go all the way to hell. Hill
Country's brisket is still there, forever fatty, a promise kept.
To be a regular is not just to settle down but to grow up and appreciate that for all you haven't tasted, you're plenty lucky and plenty happy with what you have: Perla's orecchiette, Empellón Taqueria's chorizo-studded queso fundido.
And Barbuto's chicken. Definitely Barbuto's chicken, crisp-skinned and drizzled with herbs. The restaurant's chef and owner, Jonathan Waxman, told me that he never expected to have the chicken on the menu every single night of the 9 1/2 years that Barbuto has been in business, but regulars won't go without it.
"That and the kale," he said.
So we get them.
If we're going to commit (more or less) to Barbuto, she's going to be faithful to us.