The famous toast arrived huddled in clamshell packaging, snuggled in and protected; opening it felt like breaking the seal on a sleeping pod. The topping’s edges were a little mussed, its swirls askew, but otherwise the toast looked like it was supposed to look: A fat, long slice of brioche heaped with a cloud of white ricotta, smeared with three pink-to-purple tones of jam like an edible Rothko. At our kitchen table, I held the container to keep it steady, and my girlfriend took the toast out with clean hands, plopping it on our plate.
This is the new reality of Los Angeles dining. This reality is sudden, and alarming, so maybe it’s better to call it surreality, like the over-saturated blue sky everyone remembers from 9/11. Restaurants across the city have shuttered, permitted only to offer takeout and delivery, if they can even afford to stay open — street vendors are banned entirely. No independent restaurant is financially equipped to survive a two-week shutdown, let alone the two months some experts predict, and potentially several more rounds of social distancing after that. Without unprecedented help, restaurants are fucked.
For now, those who can are offering food to go, and restaurant enthusiasts, are doing what they always do — posting their meals to Instagram. The slideshow of beautiful takeout is a strange sight, and strangest of all is to see the visual iconography of Sqirl, the destination restaurant in Los Angeles responsible for spreading the meme of jam-laden toast across the country, transformed by social distancing. On Instagram, there is a proper way to eat ricotta toast with your eyes: shot overhead, teetering on the edge of a tiny cafe tables, dappled in Los Angeles sunlight. Now, on @sqirlla’s Instastories, which is reposting images that the restaurant has been tagged in, the toast appears on a kitchen table, or on someone’s lap inside a car, lolls inside its white clamshell, messy and chubby, almost profligate. It looks emphatically not where it is supposed to be.
At the beginning of March, the Cut writer Molly Fischer asked, Will the millennial aesthetic ever end? In the world of food, nothing encapsulated that aesthetic more than Sqirl’s ricotta toast. It was fancy but also humble, luscious but also virtuous, and not one but several shades of pink. It was a synecdoche for bittersweet optimism in the twenty-teens, young urban dwellers giving up on New York and San Francisco but holding out hope for the salvation of Los Angeles, where you could rent a little house and eat a gargantuan slice of bread with so many toppings you need a knife and fork. Instagram made the toast into a neurotic culture hound’s Pokemon, drawing in ever further-flung aspirants to capture it and display it. Instagram, Los Angeles, and Sqirl co-constructed each other for a privileged and influential set, one that very occasionally included movie stars but was much more likely to consist of people with cool jobs and no savings. And unlike the many, many technicolor and tasteless spectacles that followed in its wake, the ricotta toast actually tastes really good.
Under Los Angeles’s current pandemic restrictions, it is both much harder and much easier to get the toast. I live too far from Sqirl to have it delivered, but with all the freeways clear of the people who would be driving on them, it was a disconcertingly fast trip to pick it up, passing under massive signs urging me to stay in and wash my hands (on it). All along Virgil Avenue, pink trumpet trees bloomed, lurid and romantic; the long line that normally stood outside Sqirl was gone, replaced by a few people staring down at their phones, standing far from each other. Inside, a counter person with a bleached mullet and colorful pants greeted me from behind the counter; another person in a vintage T-shirt brought out my order in a paper bag, him holding one side of it, and me taking the other. No one else was in the dining room, and the wide-open door blew in spring air. I thanked the staff and wished them luck; the counter person said, “You know what? We’ll take it.”
Back home, the toast tasted exactly like it should: soft and yeasty from the bread, the ricotta layer so clean it’s almost weightless, the different swirls of strawberry and blood orange and blackberry jam hitting with berry or floral notes. In the past, while sitting out on Sqirl’s sidewalk, the sun pouring on my face, the toast has tasted like a simple pleasure, a little break. Eaten at home, after days of social distancing and cooking cabbage and beans, it was almost impossibly rich. I felt like I was eating a gigantic slice of cake, but a nourishing one, like a sweet and hearty childhood breakfast. I had expected it to feel bleak, and I did feel moments of sadness. But there was comfort, too. It felt a little like a visit from a friend.
Sqirl’s chef and owner Jessica Koslow handles her restaurants’ social media herself, and she’s been heartened to see her most famous dishes in her regulars’ homes. Among American chefs, Koslow is one of the most sensitive to the role cuisine plays in building community and creativity, and not just in the Chef’s Table tweezer echelon; she sees her restaurant as a place where staff can produce creative work, like the handmade sprinkles on the restaurant’s last donut special before it had to shut down the dining room. “The sprinkles were such a labor of love, taking the time to do things we could afford to,” she says. “The thing that’s hitting me hardest is that the culture of coming together also allows for the artistry. I look at a photo of a doughnut and feel sentimental. Maybe that’s why food can resonate and is working [at home], this feeling it still connected.”
If takeout orders continue, Koslow believes Sqirl can survive even a protracted shutdown, and she knows how lucky that makes her (she is seeing the other side of the struggle with her newer and larger restaurant, Onda). But she worries for her staff, and for herself, and for the future. “I see something I built over 10 years be an anchor, and it will make it. It might be broken when it reopens, but it will be there.”
In the food world, another way of eating was already emerging, embodied by a brothy, brown bowl of beans with not stray splotch of pink in sight. But in food, the millennial aesthetic’s end may be marked by these photos of ricotta toast in takeout containers, weirdly framed, in bad light, about to be eaten somewhere safe. This isn’t to say the toast doesn’t offer pleasure in its snug form — it offers an overwhelming amount. And it’s very rare to eat at Sqirl alone, so the toast is also a reminder of shared, leisurely meals with loved ones in the past. One Instastories caption over a toast unboxing says it was sent by the recipient’s boyfriend, a doctor who’s in quarantine. He sent it so they could still share a meal at Sqirl together over video. Every aesthetic ends with some kind of social change, maybe. But I’ve never seen one shift so awfully and brutally, with so much grief.
Meghan McCarron is Eater’s special correspondent