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The Perks of Being a Regular

It's secretly liberating to go to the same restaurant over and over

There are 501 emails in my inbox that contain the word “Bianca.” The first, from November 2004, is an email confirming dinner plans with my roommate at the time. The last, from September 2015, is a one-line Gchat to my husband: “Bianca closed last night :( :( :(.” Nearly every week for more than a decade, I had found myself eating at Bianca, a quaint little Italian restaurant at the easternmost end of Bleecker Street. It’s where I celebrated nearly every birthday, every New Year's Eve, every family visit, every last hurrah before friends moved away. It was the through-line as my life ran its course; week after week, month after month, year after year, Bianca was the backdrop.

I was a regular.

Don’t get me wrong: I love the thrill of experiencing a restaurant for the first time. And I love that the challenge of never dining at the same place twice is more preposterously exciting now than it ever has been. But much like wearing a uniform, being a regular allows you to opt out of the chaotic, tangled maze of where-to-eat lists and Foursquare triangulation, and quietly, confidently return to what feels right, over and over again.

It was Bianca’s staunchly Romagnese menu that first caught my eye as I wandered by one night in the fall of 2004, shortly after graduating from college and moving to New York. I had just started a job as a glorified gopher at a PR firm, so the idea of reliving a glamorous semester abroad in Bologna through a cheap bottle of Lambrusco and a heap of gnocco fritto — fried dough that’s typically topped with cured meats or spreadable cheese — felt like a particularly excellent way to spend a weeknight. That evening, some friends and I sat at a table way in the back and shared a bunch of $13 pastas while we were charmed by the exposed brick, dish-towel napkins, and floral pottery. At that point, I had never seen a restaurant quite like it.

This was late 2004, a pivotal year in the history of New York dining culture. There were new restaurants to explore, new types of meals to be had, and new food concepts to consider, but even as I started dining out more adventurously, I kept finding my way back to the same place, over and over again. Sure, it was cheap. But it also had a tagliatelle alla Bolognese with just the right level of punch from the tomato, and it had George, a sort of hybrid manager/maitre d’ who spent his shift zipping around the room, yukking it up table-side, refilling Prosecco glasses, and making it his business to talk to everyone. I felt like I had stumbled upon something special.

I was raised as a regular, so it’s no surprise that I glommed on to a favorite early in adulthood. Growing up, my parents maintained unwavering fidelity to a handful of tried-and-true favorites. A few years ago, on the afternoon that I got engaged, we celebrated at the Narragansett, Rhode Island, restaurant where I’ve been dining since the age of 6. My mom says that we’ve been there more than 500 times over 30 years — a “conservative estimate,” she cautions.

When you’re a regular, you become a creature of habit and ritual, joyously unburdened by the agonies of choice. My standard date was usually a close friend from childhood and eventually we stopped even looking at the menu, itself an archaic tool of the non-regular. Summer meant burrata caprese. Hangovers, lasagna with beef and bechamel. Otherwise, the spaghetti with tomato-basil sauce for her, and the signature ragu for me. The implicit, agreed-upon arrangement left us free to talk about more important things, like jobs, families, and relationships.

You’ll probably have zero spectacular meals and a massive, blurred-together volume of inoffensively good ones as a regular. And that’s fine. The food should be good, obviously, and there should be enough variety that you don’t get bored. But if the steak’s a little unseasoned now and again, so be it. Most of us can’t reasonably go to Del Posto or Blue Hill at Stone Barns every week; as much as I like fine dining, marveling obsequiously at a solemn procession of perfect tasting-menu dishes is a surefire way to dampen dinner conversation. I don’t remember exactly what I ordered the first night I went to Bianca, but I do remember where I sat. As the years went on, any time I had a real reason to celebrate — new jobs, engagements, birthdays — I’d call up George and request “the table in back.”

Freedom from the externalities of restaurant choice also allows you to forge a deeper connection with restaurant staff. You care about the server you’ve gossiped with dozens of times; you’re in it with them. When you witness another diner being rude, or under-tipping, you feel it too. Over 10 years, I got to know the ins and outs of kids’ intramural activities, boyfriends, vacation plans. Conversations that started on a Saturday night resumed, unbroken, 10 days later. The reciprocal was also true: after witnessing a rotating cast of schlubby second dates, everyone seemed relieved when I finally introduced them to Eric, my eventual husband.

Being a regular isn’t necessarily easy. It requires unwavering commitment and physical effort. A neighborhood restaurant is a convenience; a restaurant where you’re a regular is a compass. At first, getting to Bianca was a breeze — either by subway, when I lived at 50th Street and Second Avenue, or by foot, when I moved into a shoebox studio near New York University. Things got more difficult when I decamped to Princeton, NJ for two years for my first job as an editor — what was once walking distance became a trek involving a car, two New Jersey Transit trains, and two subways. When I moved back to the city, the downtown-bound B or D from Columbus Circle was quick and painless, as was the ride on the Manhattan-bound F from Downtown Brooklyn. Then, in 2010, when I was hired to launch the national edition of Curbed, Eater’s sister site, I was just as excited about the office’s location — five blocks due north of Bianca — as I was about the promise of a new professional challenge.

The best thing about being a regular, especially in a city that values exceptionalism, is that it allows you to be regular. You can embrace a truly unexceptional set of goals: show up, be nice, tip well. Whether you’re wearing gym clothes or a miniskirt, it doesn’t matter, because you are just a regular person. Cry at the table if something has made you sad, because regular people cry when they’re sad, or cackle loudly at a joke, even if your voice carries across the room, because regular people laugh when something’s funny. As a regular, you don’t need to put on airs; you can forgo the theatrical mannerisms of dining out — composure, anonymity, restraint — and just be yourself.

A few weeks ago, I walked by 5 Bleecker Street. The new tenant is Bessou, a Japanese restaurant that people seem to like. Through the window I noticed a woman idly playing with her phone, presumably waiting for someone. I wondered whether that was her first dinner at Bessou, or whether she had already been there a few times. I hoped that if she was waiting for a date, that things would go well. I hoped that Bessou would be where she toasted promotions and engagements, and where she ended up on random Saturday nights while her friends haggled for 5:30 bar seats somewhere newer and hotter. I hoped the staff treated her well, and vice versa. Most of all, I hoped, for her sake, that Bessou stays open forever.

As a regular without a home, I feel a bit like a ship without a port these days: wandering, aimless. I’ve tried, and failed, to become a regular elsewhere. My husband and I are considering Rucola, in Boerum Hill, as our go-to spot. With exposed bricks, a twinkly, candlelit atmosphere, and rustic, grandma’s-kitchen Italian food, which all remind me vaguely of Bianca, it’s got potential. We’ll see.

Sarah Firshein is a Brooklyn-based editor, writer, and media consultant.
Kit Mills is an illustrator, designer, and graveyard enthusiast based in NYC.
Edited by Matt Buchanan
Copy edited by Rachel P. Kreiter


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