Café I

The best restaurant in the history of the city of New York closed forever last year, and it was all my fault.

It was a modest little place in the center of a long row of squat gray buildings, tucked in between a yoga studio and a plumbing supply wholesaler. It did not have a listing on Yelp, or a marketing budget, or even a name. The restaurant—people just called it that, “the restaurant,” if they called it anything—was open only for lunch on weekday afternoons, and it wasn’t uncommon for it to be closed on Fridays if the weather was nice outside.

The owner’s name was Sandy, and Sandy worked alone. No one knew why. None of us knew a thing about Sandy, other than the one startlingly obvious fact that Sandy was a genius with food. Every meal I ever had at the restaurant was superlative, off-the-scale excellent even in a city of high-level cuisine. Sandy’s food was always simple in concept—heart-nourishing soups, thick meaty sandwiches, hand-crafted salads—but everything was fresh and delicious and skillfully prepared.

Sandy very easily could have been a famous chef with a national reputation, leading a talented brigade at a high-end restaurant that would thrill diners and dazzle even the most jaded food critic. But that would have meant dealing with investors and sous-chefs and waiters and bartenders, and that wasn’t what Sandy wanted to do at all. Sandy worked alone, and that informed what the restaurant was and how it worked.

The restaurant didn’t have a menu, for one thing. You ate whatever Sandy was dishing out that day, and you were grateful for it. If you were a regular—that is to say, one of the few people who knew of the restaurant’s existence—Sandy would send you a text in the morning, telling you what was available that day. You replied “IN” or “OUT,” and if you were “IN,” Sandy would send you a text telling you when to pick up your lunch.

When you walked into the restaurant, you walked down a long, thin corridor until you came to a tiny window, where your lunch was waiting for you. Just to the right of the window was a large refrigerator stocked with bottles of Poland Spring water, one to a customer. (If you wanted a soda, or coffee, you had to bring it in yourself.) You took your lunch, got your water bottle, and found a place to sit down.

And this was the beauty of the restaurant, what made it so special, what made those of us who ate there so devoted to it. There weren’t any tables. The restaurant had carrels, like at a library, and each carrel had one chair. You found an unoccupied carrel, sat down, turned on your laptop or tablet or whatever other device you liked, put on your headphones, and ate your delicious lunch in complete solitude.

I mean, you just couldn’t beat that.

I only found out about the restaurant because of a guy I barely knew. His name was Ron Newman, and he had rowed crew at Brown when I was at Princeton. He was leaving Manhattan for a new job in Seattle, and that meant he could nominate someone to take his place as a regular. He’d remembered me as a kindred spirit, I guess. We had a quick drink at a quiet bar in the Financial District, and he told me all about Sandy and the restaurant and how it worked. I was skeptical at first, and then I tried Sandy’s pastrami sandwich—on toasted pumpernickel, with hand-ground mustard and just a tiny smear of apple butter—and I was hooked.

I ate at the restaurant at least three times a week, more if I could get away with it. Every time I had a lunch meeting in the office, eating a flimsy sub sandwich and having to listen to other people crunch on mass-produced potato chips, my heart sank. But whenever I could get out of the office and grab a quick bite at the restaurant, I was revitalized. It was more than just the food, although the food was spectacular. It was the opportunity to commune with myself, to be alone for a brief moment in a city of 7 million people, to be exactly the person I expected myself to be, and nobody else.

The last time I went to the restaurant was a sunny day in late August. Sandy was making roasted eggplant soup, spiced with curry powder, served with a generous dollop of Greek yogurt. I left the office and strolled the four blocks to the storefront. Two people were waiting out front for me.

“There you are,” Lance said.

Lance was my supervisor, and Clayton was with him. Clayton worked in human resources, something to do with staff development. I stifled the urge to run in the other direction.

“We thought we could do lunch,” Clayton said. “Lance saw you come into this place a couple of times, and we figured we might join you for lunch.”

I should have lied. I should have told them that I was going to the Thai restaurant on the next block, or that I was just out for a stroll. But I couldn’t make the words come out of my mouth. Lance opened the door and ushered me inside, and I was trapped.

There was just the one brown paper bag waiting for me in the window. I took out three bottles of water, and handed one each to Lance and Clayton. I took my bag, knowing there was only one serving of soup inside.

“Let’s find someplace to sit down, first,” I said. “I’ll see if I can get you something.” I showed them to a carrel; they looked skeptical but didn’t ask any questions. I went back to the window.

There was a screen just behind the window, so you couldn’t see into the kitchen. I had never seen Sandy, not any more than just a hand putting a bag in the window. I didn’t know anyone who had ever seen Sandy, or had had so much as a conversation with the reclusive chef.

“Excuse me,” I said, “but two people from my office followed me here, and they want to try the soup. If it’s not too much trouble.” It was a horrible moment for me, saying something to somebody else in the restaurant, in the very citadel of solitude.

Approaching Sandy and asking for a favor was like a cargo-cult savage asking the heavens for canned Spam, but I didn’t have a choice.

I waited for a long moment in silence.

“I am really sorry about this,” I said. “Please.”

I could just barely make out Lance and Clayton’s conversation; one of them was saying, “Who the hell does this guy think he is, anyway?”

Two brown paper bags appeared in the window. I snatched them, said a brief word of thanks for my deliverance, and went back to the carrel, where an obviously agitated Lance and Clayton were waiting for me.

“What the hell kind of place is this?” Lance said. “Is there not any place to sit?”

“Or a menu?” Clayton said.

“Trust me,” I said. “It’s delicious. Maybe the thing to do is to take it back to the office and eat there.”

“It’s soup,” Lance said. “It’ll get cold, and then we’d have to heat it up.”

“Do you think we could find a couple of chairs?” Clayton said.

I went down the row of carrels, and found two of them were unoccupied. I grabbed the chairs out of them, and slid them down the aisle. This earned me more than a couple of glares from other diners, but nobody said anything. They wouldn’t.

“Here you go,” I told Lance and Clayton. “Sorry.”

“This is easily the weirdest restaurant I have ever been to,” Lance said.

“It’s so quiet,” Clayton said. “It’s too quiet. It’s like eating at a library, except you’re not supposed to eat at a library.”

I opened up my container of soup and motioned for them to do the same. It was heavenly, the sweetness of the yogurt balancing out the bitterness of the roasted eggplant. Lance and Clayton tasted theirs, but their focus was on me, and that made me even more uncomfortable, if that was possible.

“We wanted to have a chance to chat with you outside the office,” Lance said. “You know, to talk about you, and your development, and your future with the firm.”

“We have been watching you for a long time,” Clayton said. “Your work has been stellar. But we’ve noticed that you don’t always do your best work when you’re collaborating, or when you’re a team. You always seem a little reserved, a little aloof.”

“Not that this is a bad thing,” Lance said. “But we think it could hurt you down the road. You know, as far as getting promoted. This soup is delicious, by the way.”

“I know,” Clayton said. “It’s got just enough spice to it. Anyway, look. We are not trying to get on your case here, all right? This is not going on your record. It’s a friendly chat. What we’re trying to do is to see if we can figure out how to get you to open up around other people. Be more of a team player.”

“It’s a personality thing,” Lance said. “Not a work thing. It’s just that people don’t like to work with someone who’s not all that outgoing, you know?”

If we had been at work—in some anonymous conference room—I could have addressed everything they were saying. I could have explained that I wasn’t being aloof or reserved or anything like that, at least not on purpose. I could have pointed out everything that I brought to the table, how it balanced out those elements of my personality. But here, in a space that was created to honor silence, introspection, and incredible soup, I could not say a word in my own defense.

“This is outstanding soup. Lance, doesn’t your wife manage a restaurant?”

“She does indeed, and she’s always looking for new talent. And this soup is evidence of that. Do you happen to know the chef? Because…you know, working in a place like this, a chef is probably looking for greener pastures, right?”

A door that I’d never noticed before opened, and Sandy came bursting out of the kitchen. She raced down the aisle of carrels to where we were standing, and took off her chef’s hat.

I had never seen her before now; nobody had. She was unspeakably beautiful. In a town filled with beautiful women, she was something like a minor goddess. And she was incandescently angry.

“You’ve had your soup,” she said. “Now get out of here, and don’t come back. Ever. This is my place. I worked hard for it, and I sweated blood to get it just the way I wanted it, and I’m not giving it up for anyone.”

“Are you sure about that?” Lance said. “Because you could do so much better, with a little more effort. You could be a real star in this business.”

“Leave,” she said, and her pastel blue eyes were visibly seething with anger. Lance and Clayton put their soup containers down and silently filed out of the restaurant.

Sandy turned to glare at me. “What were you thinking, bringing them here?”

“I love you,” I said. I hadn’t meant to say it, but it was true. I had never loved anyone before, and I had to say it to her, if I never said anything again.

“You are banned,” she said. “For two weeks. Don’t try to call me or text me, or you’ll be banned forever.”

“What are you doing tonight?” I asked. “Maybe we could go and…”

“Get something to eat?” Sandy asked. “No.”

“Go see a movie?”

“Talk to me in two weeks,” she said, and went back into the kitchen. I finished the dregs of my soup and left.

I returned a week later, just because I couldn’t stay away. There was a line at the restaurant that was already out the door and spilling out into the street. The next day, the line was around the corner. The next day, the line was gone. There was a handwritten note attached to the door that said, “Closed forever.”

I got a “needs improvement” on my quarterly evaluation from Lance and Clayton, and I took the hint and quit. I spent half my severance pay on a private investigator to try to find Sandy, but he could find no trace of her. I spent the other half of the money on a two-month lease on the storefront Sandy abandoned.

The first two weeks, all I made was grilled cheese sandwiches. But all of the regulars came back, like nothing had happened. I started to learn how to cook from watching YouTube videos. I can turn out passable stews now, and decent sandwiches, and last week I made a curried Waldorf salad that wasn’t too far removed from what Sandy would have made.

The only other thing I did differently was to give the restaurant a name. I hold on to the hope that one day Sandy will just decide to walk by, to see what’s occupying the space where her restaurant was, and she just might see the name on the door and step inside and order something, just out of curiosity. It is a thin reed of hope, I know. But dreams have been built on less.