Dear Frances

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Frances restaurant closed

Dear Frances,

It’s been too long since I’ve visited.  We’ve both become so dormant. I understand your absence—I know it’s necessary—but still, I miss you.

When we first met over a decade ago, I was not yet thirty. You were crazy-talented, a bit French, chic yet understated. You knew what you were about. You moved into a small space on an unassuming, residential street with minimal fanfare in 2009, the year the market slipped like a landslide in a season of ceaseless rain. Ten days before that, just blocks away, I, too, signed a lease.

You radiated elegance and sophistication, yet you were friendly and easygoing. Low, golden light spilled from your windows. You were never boisterous, just social. You didn’t blast; you hummed. You weren’t some modernist, fusion fiasco echoing the style of the neighborhood. Your minimal furnishings and spare aesthetic kept you classy, but I could see your cushions were sewn by hand, maybe by your mother. I could tell the aprons you used were soft, maybe even silk. You weren’t one for needless discomfort. You didn’t cut corners, but you didn’t clutter them, either.

I had barely arrived each time I visited, and you were already offering gifts, plying me with seasonal fruit and wine concoctions you called market-shots. What a feat—using fruit to flirt and educate—each sip immediately illustrating what came to fruition that month: Crenshaw melons in August, Kishu mandarins in February, strawberries in May. When you handed me the menu on almond-colored paper, it felt like a love note, ever-changing and light enough to hold between two fingers—deceivingly casual for a thing strewn with temptations.

Long before I made reservations for anything else—not for movies, and certainly not for dinner—I made them for you. I was an artist working part-time as a barista in a bustling bakery; I’d stash away weeks of tips to lavish on you. I’d come home, shower, and slip on the outfit I’d planned embarrassingly far in advance, knowing I’d be seeing you.

You never rushed me, never teased me for my eager, childlike enthusiasms. You handled my many queries—What is preserved sudachi? Glazed celtuce? A chocolate bonet?—in stride, with kindness. I knew well the Zen-like discipline and endless patience required to remain as calm—to appear as unburdened—as you did in that bustling room full of to-dos and personalities. I took note, observing your graciousness, your fluid gestures, wondering if I should make them my own. You treated every admirer equally, be they habitué or stranger.

Even when I showed up unannounced at ten pm, hungry for boozy affogato and black sesame meringue, you smiled like you’d been expecting me all along. You didn’t judge me for being late, clumsy, and oddly outfitted. In your presence, I felt elevated, connected, at ease. You were impressive, Frances, but you didn’t let yourself get worked up about it. You put your heart into it, your crew nimble in a thimble-sized kitchen—in the flow, never wobbling under pressure, making more room, more food, for all of us.

You made it easy for people like myself, overwhelmed by choices, and offered just a few. I long for your redolent red snapper, your chickpea frites, your roasted romanesco brightened with preserved lemon and tempered with creamy anchovy-aioli. I long for your candied kumquats in slow-roasted lamb, your tendrils of just-rolled fettuccine, your swirls of Sungold tomatoes simmered in olive oil until bursting; all fireworks, so easy-to-fork.

I told my parents they’d love you if they only got to know you. I brought everyone I dated that decade to see you. If we didn’t have a magical evening under your care, I knew we wouldn’t stand a chance. You were consistent, and in your even light, I could see my companion more clearly. I noticed, as I’m sure you did, how he handled sitting so close to his neighbor, how he treated your staff, how adventurous his palette, how generous the tip.

Restaurants like you, Frances, gave me a space—and a reason—to practice adult virtues of patience and gratitude, to be stirred by somatic and social experiences. The choices and conveniences of virtually selecting meals—meals delivered to our doors by strangers—can not compare. You foster community. You focus our attention on what we eat, on how—and by whom—our food is grown and cooked.

When we dine out, we sit for an hour in a room whose buzz we only borrow. We feel full from both the feast and the friendships fostered at your table. When we mingle, dining in communal spaces like yours, we tell one another, in shared glances and dessert suggestions: This we should celebrate—no matter how fleeting. We agree to invest our curiosity, time, and resources in real, vital food; in local farmers, new crops, old seeds, young chefs, and proud waiters. We admit these things matter to us, that they’re as imperative to our culture as our designs, technologies, and relationships.

Just before the pandemic shuttered your doors, Frances, I brought the man I was falling in love with to visit you, curious if he’d fall for you, too. Our waiter—he’d been part of your pack from day one—had probably never seen me visit with the same man twice. I placed my order, and in a moment of surprising candidness, he looked me straight in the eye and complimented my wonderfully diverse taste. I don’t know if he was speaking to my taste in food, or men, or both. He was subtle, warm, and a bit mystifying—just like you, Frances.

One day I will introduce myself and thank him. I will ask him what he meant and how he’s been. All forty-eight seats will be taken, with a soft throng of more to come, at the door. I will see not just the real value of what is on my plate, but also appreciate—maybe for the first time—everything you have on yours.

Steadfastly,

Airyka

Reprinted with permission from The Long Wait, created by Fyrn in support of raising proceeds for the 86Fund.