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Monday, April 19, 2021

NYC’s food year is at its peak now

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Everyone’s slowly starting to accept that New York’s summer — and for that matter, the whole country’s — is over, and it’s that most important of announcements: It’s time to head indoors to the bar, or maybe a restaurant, to scarf down something proper.

If you missed the first couple of weeks of the “food year” (for everyone except Madison Avenue waiters), the first real food months began at the end of August and ran through mid-September. The dates that most people know as food months — kale crisp, Thanksgiving turkey, holiday desserts — are now basically just two: September and November. The greens have waned. The turkeys are done. Now is the time when the menu stacks up like toys on a slanted office desk: The flip side of Thanksgiving is December, and New Year’s Eve. So, the first few weeks of the “food year” were a little shaky. As farmers, chefs, delivery trucks and deliverymen retreated to their homes, why would New Yorkers and tourists cancel out one another? Are they too small for it all? At the dinner table?

And now, the good news is out: Good riddance.

There was, of course, September: stuffy, relaxed, a little bit slow. This was because the whole country went on vacation. Yes, according to the National Weather Service, people did go on vacation. But New York City was, of course, still not on vacation. Because, although the weather wasn’t bad, it just wasn’t great. The restaurants were still open, though a few were still entertaining the idea of closing.

That last part means there were mostly not many days when you could take a leisurely family meal in a local restaurant. Sure, it was worth the drive. But each of those days felt like a drag. You were forced to crane your neck to hear an old-fashioned New York accent, or watch longings flag on the faces of your dear grandparents. The lines had either not budged, or the food — homey but not homey enough — was rarely celebrated. The traffic was sometimes slow, too. You could use a secondhand cab to get home and leave New York city.

But, as those two months wound down, the American summer was back and here to stay. This makes it all the more confusing. August and September didn’t exactly cause thousands of restaurants to move to the suburbs. The start of the official “food year” had been marked by all those deliveries and chefs sitting outside in late summer, worrying about too-warm-looking piles of food in the backyards of their well-to-do neighbors. But it didn’t change New York’s summer at all. It was just another month.

Fall finally arrived, and the summer slowly began to be replaced by autumn, once again with September-October. There are still weeks to go. The forecast seems pretty hunky dory.

By now, I imagine you’re wondering, if nothing else, whether New York City has the talent to make its own dining year. Last month, when the news spread that City Tavern planned to open its own restaurant across the street from City Tavern (to fill a gap that City Tavern, which opened in 1980, had missed), I predicted that the new restaurant would soon be a great success. My guess was, and still is, that this new restaurant will be just fine. I was just wrong: The new restaurant on 44th Street is probably going to be a not-so-great success. It’s a shame, since City Tavern itself is looking much more like a classic little spot than the hot-dog stand of its former incarnation. I can’t say I’m too bummed by that, though. I think it’s a problem that New York needs to be first.

The holiday that started the whole new “food year” and inevitably shifted people’s priorities was the trickiest of all. Christmas, both those that come late in November and those that come early in December. You’re already seeing the effects. And while the staples of New York’s holiday eats remain, you can’t have your great-grandparents’ meal and eat it too. In other words, New York’s meal is changing.

One thing seems certain: Not to have a good meal at this point is not to be held in high regard. One blogger made a plea. “Tell your food people you want a New York holiday tradition to have the same kind of reputation as Chicago’s.”

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