What was best about 2020?
There were a few months of worry-free dining, but the pandemic not only limited my work as a restaurant critic, it also altered my thinking about dining out, changed the way I choose restaurants and, more than anything, made me realize that going to a restaurant is not just about the food and the fun.
So much of what we do centers on restaurants. We hold business meetings there, we celebrate special occasions there, we reward ourselves and the people we love for professional achievements – good grades or just for getting a chore done around the house – by going out for pizza or a fine steak.
But, especially for me given the responsibility The Journal Gazette gave me, it also becomes a ritual or a habit that we construct our free time around. When the weekend rolled around and my family would discuss what we were doing, whatever restaurant I needed to review – or just a dish or place I was craving – set the tone for our weekend slate.
I miss every argument we had when deciding where to go and every long drive to Warsaw or Bluffton just to eat somewhere.
My first meal back out after the initial lockdown was a terrible one, a fact I am sure some of you will enjoy. But it wasn't just the bad food that made it terrible, it was the new way we had to dine that added to my misery. And it continues to make me miserable.
Searching for places with patios was first. Then it was looking for spacious places that allowed for distancing indoors, which eliminated some of the cozy little independents I adore. Yes, the chains became attractive because of their size and ability to follow the new guidelines. It hurts to admit it, but that was the case.
Then came the hurting over places that I couldn't visit anymore because they couldn't survive the shutdown.
One of the toughest losses was, ironically, a chain, Azar's Big Boy in the Waynedale community. There had been an Azar's in Fort Wayne pretty much as long as most of us have been alive, but no more. And I will not be able to get my Big Boy burger fix anymore, either.
Bravas, Athenian, Bird & Cleaver, Queen of Sheba – the list is still growing. There are some places we have lost that I am sure I'm not even aware of yet. And there will be more that we lose going forward as this pandemic seems far from over.
Early on, the emails and messages kept coming in to me about owners and staff members breaking the new COVID guidelines, and I, too, saw my share of violators. My simple advice was to turn around and go someplace else. Arguing with owners or threatening to report would do little more than bring you grief.
But every time I walked back out, shaking my head, I had to remind myself that these business owners were in a whole new world, too – an ever-changing world for them that was hard for them to keep up with.
I remember talking to Laycoff's owner Jimmy Sullivan back in May as he was doing his best to stay up to date with the governor's mandates and the health department and CDC guidelines. And I remember him and other business owners struggling with how to deal with customers who didn't want to put on a mask or honor social distancing.
I never thought those same issues would be plaguing us at this point. But, as we have seen from the health department shuttering some places recently, we still need to do better as customers and simply as human beings.
I also recall a conversation in the fall with Casa director of operations Tom Parisi after the governor moved us to Stage 5 in the fall and said restaurants could open at 100%. But the governor also said those restaurants should incorporate social distancing, which puzzled both of us.
How many restaurants have 6 feet between tables? Not many. Places that were able to serve at 100% capacity only could do so for a short time before the numbers rose again and we reverted.
I returned to a couple of small favorites recently – only after making sure it was safe – and as happy as I was to be back, I was just as sad to hear the stories from employees and owners who struggled all year trying to be safe and still trying to make a living.
Bucking a trend
Some restaurant owners stayed strong and refused to let the pandemic hold them back, and for that they deserve a tip of the cap:
• Shigs in Pit opened a new store on Illinois Road in September.
• The Summit Grill opened in what was once Flanagan's on Covington Road in October. The restaurant features a big, modern patio and pick-up lane incorporated as a direct result of this pandemic.
• Chance Bar took over a legendary spot on the south side that was once home to Hartley's on Fairfield Avenue in September. It is always nice to see old gems being given new life.
• Lalo's Mexican Restaurant opened along Lima Road in April.
As we look forward to a better 2021, I want to share a few places that were highlights for me in the past year. Some were enjoyed before the pandemic, and some were highlights because of the way they handled it.
Three Rivers Distilling Co., 224 E. Wallace St. – It was great when I reviewed it last winter, and it was the site of my first post-lockdown restaurant meal with friends – outside on its fantastic patio – and it was wonderful. It had become a new favorite spot.
Magic Wand, Churubusco – The fondest memory I have of the past summer when it comes to dining was an impromptu cruise-in with some fellow truck enthusiasts at this Whitley County staple. It was our first time since the pandemic to gather in such a way – properly distanced outside, of course. And I have made the journey to this retro gem, which has been adjusted to meet the health requirements with booth extenders and limited table space – several times this year. The food and ice cream is always great, and an old-school place like this helps you forget about the problems of the world when you visit.
Pho Indy, 4634 Coldwater Road – Though I love the small spots that serve authentic Asian fare, the big dining room here that made social distancing easy was a real draw and it, too, became a go-to for my family. The soups are wonderful and there is a wide variety of tasty and affordable appetizers as well as bubble teas and smoothies.
Arco's Restaurante Mexicano, 2868 Dupont Road – No patio here, but it is well spaced and its combination of unique and delicious dishes as well as the best margarita in the area – the jalapeņo-cucumber on the rocks with salt – made it easily the standard for Mexican restaurants here.
Tip to trucks
I also reserved a spot for a couple of food trucks on this year's wrap-up. The trucks stayed busy throughout the pandemic, and a couple really stood out for me.
King Arthur's Trolley made me very happy one rainy morning last summer with a breakfast burrito that blew me away. This fat, tightly wrapped monster was stuffed with sausage, eggs, cheese, tomatoes, onions and peppers. It was perfection. The burgers are also knockouts.
I also found that the fried treats I love at Big Eyed Fish do not lose any luster when served out of the Big Eyed Fish on Wheels truck. The big tenderloin was as good as ever, and the super-crunchy fantail shrimp basket out of this relatively new truck was worth following it around to have again. Heck, I didn't even try the fish.
Wings; Rack and Helen's, New Haven –Smoked, then fried until crisp and sauced, they are some of the best around. I have mine with the restaurant's perfect house sauce or the cherry-bourbon, or usually both, as I order plenty.
Seafoood soup; Mino II, Garrett – An unplanned stop for lunch at this German-Italian gem made me glad to see it was still open and even gladder to have this yummy Italian soup with its perfectly seasoned seafood-forward light broth, shrimp and scallops.
Risotto with Pork Belly; Three Rivers Distilling Co. – This fall version of the creamy rice is gluten-free and usually vegan ... unless you add a big hunk of perfectly cooked pork belly with its crispy rendered fat. The rice was tremendous with roasted sweet corn, smoked shiitake mushrooms, arugula, shaved Parmesan, white truffle oil, microgreens and a white wine reduction. Adding the pork made it one of the best dishes in the city.
Orange duck with fried rice; West Coast Grille, 2310 S. Calhoun St. – The bone-in half duck in this dish was super-crispy, and its thick orange glaze gave it the classic sweet and tangy flavor. It came with pan-fried udon noodles, carrots, cabbage and white and green onions that was delicious, but the rice I ordered with another dish was a masterpiece. It was toasted beautifully in the wok to give it a subtle charred flavor, and it had just the right amount of soy sauce to flavor it without overpowering the carrots, sprouts, onions, peas and, most importantly, the rice.
Buffal-faux pizza; Riverbend Pizza, 7420 St. Joe Road – This vegetarian delight has perfectly roasted bulbs of cauliflower glazed in a standard Buffalo hot sauce. There is also just enough of the spicy cheddar cheese blend to make it say “pizza” without taking away the florets, which mimic chicken with their meaty texture. Still-crunchy celery is the perfect accompaniment, and it – and the drizzle of ranch dressing – cools the spice nicely.
Cabbage rolls; Liberty Diner, 2929 Goshen Road – From the specials menu, these rolls were a great belly warmer and, though simple and straightforward, satisfied completely.
Frosty Malt, Don Hall's restaurants – These creamy, retro treats are always perfect, and they will make you forget about your worries and remember better days every time you have one.
Rainbow cake; Umi Fort Wayne, 2912 Getz Road – A great dessert at a sushi place? Well, given that general manager Tiercell Schwartz's grandmother, Edna Moser, is whose cakes they serve, the answer is yes. Her rainbow was my favorite, with bright layers of moist cake with a nice garnish of berry sauce to add a little zip.
Ryan DuVall is a restaurant critic for The Journal Gazette. Email him at email@example.com; call at 461-8130. DuVall's past reviews can be found at www.journalgazette.net. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram @DiningOutDuVall.