The soft, flaky spinach pie! The bounteous veggie lasagna! The sweet (but not too sweet) carrot cake!
I devoured these things at Whole Wheat 'n' Wild Berrys, an earthy, vegetarian restaurant in Manhattan's pre-gentrified West Village, where my soon-to-be husband and I locked eyes across the table. We delighted in our lives together in our disheveled walk-up on West 4th Street, across from the Pink Pussycat, an infamous sex shop. "We'll love each other forever," we swore, clicking our mugs of unsweetened herbal tea, agreeing it would always be just us, no kids.
I didn't like what I saw when I imagined myself as a mom: frazzled, depressed, wearing an old housedress, trapped over a stove, day in and day out. That sad woman—who very much resembled my own mother—was not who I wanted to be. The freedom to dine out whenever I wanted was a symbol that I would never become her.
At least twice a week, hand in hand, my beloved and I strolled the six blocks uptown to Whole Wheat 'n' Wild Berrys, where we prided ourselves on eating veggie meals so unlike what our exhausted meat-and-potato mothers had served us as kids.
Whole Wheat 'n' Wild Berrys closed in 1995, perhaps due to rising rents, like so many of its brethren. My heart sank at the news. There would be no more perfect carrot cake for me—ever.
In the virtual realm, however, it lives on, via this lively discussion about how to make its "special" tahini salad dressing.
Another "love" was cozy, rustic David's Pot Belly on Christopher Street, famous for the pot belly stove in its window and innovative omelets and burgers. Rumor has it that Robert Mapplethorpe broke a lover's heart there. Leisurely brunches at David's, over eggs and "potato puffs," amidst its artistic—and largely gay—clientele, cemented our feelings that our "free" life together was perfect. This recipe from a chef in Buenos Aires is inspired by David's baked eggs.
Rents are astronomical on Christopher Street, and what was David's has since become a Cuban restaurant without a stove in the window. The food may be great, but I can't bring myself to step inside.
From the bohemian West Village, we moved upstate to Albany because I decided to get a doctorate in writing at the state university. In a city monopolized by state government, we felt like outsiders. Except at Cathy's Waffle Store, where we felt at home. Cathy's was a restaurant (not a store, despite its name), in the heart of lively Lark Street, aka Albany's "Greenwich Village," with cobblestone intersections, 19th century brownstones and funky vintage clothing boutiques. Alongside other child-free "alternative" types, we gazed at paintings on the wall by local artists while happily consuming Cathy's crispy waffles filled with fruit and drenched in syrup.
Cathy's is no longer. When I return to Albany to visit friends, my heart aches for those waffles. I'm not alone—Cathy also celebrates her "waffle days."
It turned out that studying linguistics and pedagogy wasn't for me, so we moved back to Manhattan. After a stint in Hell's Kitchen, we bought an apartment downtown in Chelsea and quickly discovered a local seafood place whose name I've sadly forgotten. We developed a taste for the grilled, garlic-flavored swordfish, glistening in butter, accompanied by martinis filled to the brims of our glasses.
We went there only on nights our favorite waitress was working, a statuesque blonde with swimmer's shoulders. She agreed with our sense of freedom. "Children are overrated," she enthusiastically said as she made our martinis extra dry, shaking and not stirring, a la James Bond. I felt sophisticated and unfettered. Overnight, the restaurant closed, and we never saw "our" waitress again.
And then, gradually, to no one's surprise more than our own, we started to notice how enchanting some of our friends' kids were. Babies, with their huge, gurgling laughs, made my knees go weak. Experiencing an enormous change of heart, my husband and I yearned for a child.
We became the besotted, middle-aged parents of a one-year-old girl we adopted from Guatemala. Nights out sipping martinis became pretty rare. Eating out in restaurants was far less important than it used to be. I never donned a housedress, and I actually thrilled to watch my daughter devour dishes I cooked lovingly from scratch. Still, every now and then, the memory of Cathy's waffles or David's omelets would float through my mind, and I'd have a moment of longing.
That was 13 years ago. And now we have freedom once again to dine out more often, sometimes with our daughter and sometimes without. I have new restaurant loves, mostly in and around Murray Hill, the East Side neighborhood where we now live, and in whose lack of trendiness I delight.
There's Gemini, an old-school Greek diner where my daughter had her 11th birthday party, replete with chicken fingers, French fries, spaghetti and a magician. The waiters know us and anticipate our needs: turkey and avocado salad for me; pasta oozing with melted cheddar for my daughter; Mediterranean salad for my husband.
At Dos Caminos, a Mexican place a bit further uptown, my daughter loves watching the long-haired, high-heeled twentysomethings chatter away at the crowded bar. I adore the sweet, delectable, plantain empanadas, spicy orange chipotle guacamole and Cadillac Margaritas (made with Grand Marnier) that are to die for.
Haldi, on Lexington Avenue in nearby "Curry Hill," makes the best Jewish Indian food I've ever had (the only Jewish Indian food I've ever had). I don't mind that the waiters never remember me, even though I eat there often and usually order the same okra dish.
I cherish these restaurants that currently nourish me. I've learned how fleeting their lifespan can be.
And, each precious, long-gone restaurant reminds me of who I once was, and how I've become the woman I am today—someone who loves being a mom, doesn't feel chained to the stove and prefers a sweet margarita to a dry martini.