Author Natasha Stagg Enjoys a Well-Written Menu

Natasha Stagg is a writer who has been celebrated for her sharp examinations of our culture of self-promotion and our lives online. (Earlier this year, she published her third book, Artless, a collection of essays, short dispatches, and fiction .) She’s also the type of New Yorker who admits that she’s always thinking about the city whenever she’s off somewhere else, as she was recently. Back after a few weeks away, she was excited to visit her local haunts (or “favorite overrated” places, as she puts it), but it was also a melancholy homecoming, because she was going to a screening of a new movie in which her late boyfriend appeared. 

Thursday, December 7
One of the only pieces of advice my father has given me is to never drink coffee on an empty stomach. I ignore it every day and think of him and his ulcers. I use a French press, Union Market coffee grounds, oat milk, and one of the three remaining mugs from a stacking set found on the sidewalk in front of my old apartment. Nothing special.

There are sinkholes everywhere: My ex bought me this press (after breaking another one) and I can hear him apologizing; the chamomile tea in the cabinet next to the coffee must have been one of his last purchases, ever.

Last week, I was eating Sonoran or Yaqui or Tohono O’odham food in my hometown (Tucson) while I could, the week before, fresh sushi and rare steak (Los Angeles), and the week before that, homemade Thanksgiving dishes (Kent, Connecticut), so this week I’m excited, I tell myself, to be in New York again, revisiting my favorite overrated restaurants. I still haven’t gotten back into cooking at home, and maybe never will.

After some emailing, I go to the gym because I am in a terrible mood and want to feel active in curbing that. I haven’t eaten, though, and fear this means I will pass out while running, to be shot by a treadmill right at a sweating wall, so I stop at Union Market first and pick up a gala apple and a Beecher’s Flagship cheese stick.

At home, I eat another cheese stick and have a ginger turmeric shot. I hate that I always get very hungry at exactly 1 p.m. because I know it is Pavlovian (I’ve worked in a few offices). What if I don’t want my day broken in half with another outing? I should go grocery shopping, but that sometimes reminds me of my life.

I walk to the Eckhaus Latta store in the Chinatown mall because they are launching a new sunglasses line. Everyone is there and it feels warm and friendly, but they are all talking about what parties they are attending next. I drink a cup of light red wine and then my sister (Sonia Stagg) and I get in a car that she has ordered. We are going to Ladies’ Night, a tradition so long standing at this point, the original ladies have mostly been swapped out. I may have started out as a replacement for someone, but I can’t remember now.

Tonight, because the designer Erin Knutsen has her one-year-old, we are meeting at her apartment. The artist Bea Fremderman comes after her office’s holiday party. Erin has ordered a spread from Souvlaki GR—tyrokafteri, kalamaki paketo, gigandes, prassini, hummus, tzatziki, moussakas, taramosalata, melitzanosalata, halloumi, and lemonates patates—and I’ve brought a bottle of red, something that looked familiar to me at Discovery Wines. It has a rabbit on the label.

Friday, December 8
A good review of my book has buoyed me this morning, but, unfortunately, I want to send it to the people who have doubted me in conversations. I’m acting irrationally? I don’t know what I want? Well, this English guy I’ve never met says I’m “one of our sharpest writers on life in the digital age” and “an instructive stylist” who is “resistant to quotation and impenetrable in interviews.”

I know that using this tactic, bulking up my corner of the ring with the criticism to which only writers of books are so privileged, isn’t useful, but to me it is funny, because it makes me look, ironically, even crazier. Sometimes I think that every decision I make is based on whether the outcome of that decision might be funny, and that is maybe why I am in so many arguments all the time.

On days when I have therapy (at 11 a.m.), I treat myself to a to-go coffee—from A’more Caffe or a coffee cart, depending on how I feel—which I sip on the train and then throughout our session. Afterwards, I often walk the thirty-something blocks back down and try to find something interesting for lunch on the way. Today, though, I have a phone interview at 1 p.m., and so I take the train back.

Even though I know that V-Nam Café is closed, I walk past it with hope. A block up is something even better: a new Don Ceviche outpost, still draped with a Grand Opening banner. There is a lunch special, and from it I order the vegan chickpea Peruvian grain bowl (what I usually get from their Essex Market stand), medium spice, to-go, but if I am there for dinner, I tell myself, I will finally try the rotisserie chicken and fish ceviche for which they are known. I eat half before and half after the Zoom call.

To recap, by 1:45 p.m. I have read 1,000 words about myself and talked about myself for two hours, with one hour in between. Maybe this is why.

After getting some work done, I take the F to IFC and catch the 4:50 p.m. screening of The Sweet East. I’ve been meaning to see it, but also, I’m meeting the film’s editor, Stephen Gurewitz, later for dinner. Going to theaters alone, early, is better than any other way. No concessions. My ex is in the movie as an extra, and for longer than I expected. It is like seeing a ghost, for obvious reasons. His mannerisms are so particular to him, and we don’t get to see them anymore. The movie is not semimetal, though, so I don’t cry until the end credits, when I see a note, “We Love You!” fade in next to his name. I wish the room would stay dark for a little longer, and I could hide here.

I have over two hours to kill, and the restaurant where we have a reservation is 85 feet away. There is a Six Bells holiday pop-up on Wooster Street (if you want me to go to something, tell me I’m on a list) where I stop in and see some friends, have a cosmopolitan, and start to feel overheated in my leather coat. I French exit and still have an hour, so I take a stool at Bar Veloce on Houston, a place I can only think of as reliable, not much else.

I French exit and still have an hour, so I take a stool at Bar Veloce on Houston, a place I can only think of as reliable, not much else. Stephen texts me that he’ll meet me here, and he seems to materialize in moments. He’s never been. “I like it,” he says, because I apologize for the crowd, and because he likes “a good franchise. If there’s that many, they’ve gotta be doing something right, right?” They are out of the montepulciano and the lambrusco, so I order whatever other red they have by the glass. He orders a beer.

We get to Le Gigot, a bistro on Cornelia, a little early for our reservation and are seated at the bar while our table is readied. This will be my third drink before dinner, and I know what that means, but I don’t want to be weird, so I order a glass of the chablis. We get to pick our table, and I’d rather be tucked away, although the entire place is tiny and winding, warmly and dimly lit. Everyone is on a date, but not a first one. Am I? The whole restaurant seems happy, especially our waiter, who refills our wine glasses without asking.

We get escargots and endive salad to start. I don’t think I’ve ever eaten snails loose like this, not in shells or shell-sized cups. They are fat and delicious, not just vehicles for butter and caramelized shallots. The endives are loaded with blue cheese, walnuts, red onions, and bacon, and we decide to eat them with our hands like chips and dip. My entrée is duck confit, his, boeuf bourguignon, and each is unexpectedly, excitingly flavorful. Mine comes with roasted vegetables and a kind of cheesy potato pallet, crispy like au gratin but stacked like lasagna.

Soon we are among the last diners, and I can’t finish what is on my plate. I don’t get to see the check. From the West Village, we walk down to the River, a bar in Chinatown, and discover that Stephen’s friend’s birthday party has blown up. Girls in shiny dresses and sheer tights spill out onto the street.

I had a feeling I would see someone here that I had been wanting to see, but not to run into, and there he is, and I don’t know how to behave, so I rush forward, saying everything I want to say, which is my way. It’s not the right place, the right time, or the right amount of alcohol (too much in me, too little in him), he assures me, and I remember how much I like assurance.

There are seats at the front of the bar; it isn’t that bad. Two girls take for-fucking-ever to leave the one bathroom. I am drunk. Stephen wants to leave anyway, and so he walks me part of the way home. I throw my clothes all around me from bed, the radiator too hot even with the window open, and finally fall asleep thinking there is no way I’ll get up in time for the exercise class I sometimes take in Tompkins Square Park that happens most days at 9 a.m. It’s been three weeks anyway, so what’s another day?

Saturday, December 9
I naturally wake up at 7:30 and don’t recognize much of a hangover, so I peel myself out, slip into a morning bath, sip leftover coffee, drink water, am as fine as I will be. The class lasts one hour and is different every time. When it’s over, I must go straight home again to shower, dress, and walk to Lucien for a meeting with the designer Richard Turley. This is my favorite place to go at this time of day. It’s mostly empty, but regulars always filter in, and they always sit alone, sometimes reading, sometimes not. They always order a big bowl of mussels, or something equally as involved, before noon.

The waitress, a new one, tells us they only have iced coffee today, not hot, no explanation. Turns out their cold brew is kind of frothy, espresso-like, which I never would have known. Richard orders the salade frisée aux lardons. I would order lunch, too, and am in fact very hungry, but I’ve made last minute plans with the writer John Ganz and Sonia: dim sum at 12:30. Richard and I mostly catch up; it’s been a while and will be another long time before we see each other again due to the holidays. We also of course discuss the order of the day, the next issue of his magazine, Nuts.

By the time we get our table at Tim Ho Wan, the three of us are deliriously hungry. Here is what we get and can’t finish: two orders of baked BBQ pork buns and one order each of sticky rice in lotus leaf, steamed pork dumplings with shrimp (siu mai), steamed plain rice roll with scallions, pan-fried turnip cake, pan fried noodles, blanched Chinese broccoli with garlic, green tea sesame ball with custard, and hot tea. I feel a little sick.

We decide to go for a walk with vague intentions of Christmas shopping because the weather and the sunlight is crisp, the way it’s supposed to be in New York. SantaCon is going on, and all three of us accidentally wore red. After all these years, I still haven’t figured out what SantaCon means, how it is mass-communicated, what expectations people place on it.

None of us have seen the newly opened Astor Place Wegmans yet so we take a spin. Unassuming upon entry, it stretches and loops in all directions, as elegantly merchandized as a 1950s period piece. “I’ve never seen anything like this,” says John, who I could say is hard to impress. In particular, the Japanese fish displays stop us in our tracks. They are like Audubon drawings of animals posing not-quite naturalistically in profile, arranged as if swimming in schools and shifting around banana leaves, their big glassy eyes reflecting life through death, on crushed ice.

We also go to the new Soho Eataly, not to stay on theme but because we happen to walk up to it. None of us end up buying anything (anywhere), but we do use the bathrooms, which are lovely. The next goal is more hot tea, but John’s idea, Harney & Sons, as well as my idea, Revelie Luncheonette, are busts. They are each packed because we’re in Soho on a December weekend. This area’s popularity with out-of-towners announces itself as a camping backpack knocking over and breaking a teapot for sale.

We consider a newly opened coffee shop because in the window, a woman is placing a baseball-sized Teddy bear-shaped marshmallow into a mug and pouring hot chocolate over it from a spout. John has no interest in this, though, and anyway can always think of some standbys, having grown up in Manhattan. He leads the way to Reggio, where we easily get a table and with effort get a pot of English Breakfast.

Sonia must leave for an appointment, and we walk her to the train station at West 4th Street. I’ve fallen into a bit of a reverie, and so John doesn’t want to leave me to my own devices, I can tell. We walk back to the East Village and relax at my apartment for less than an hour before he asks if I have anything to add to the bottle of tequila that I forgot I have in my freezer. My refrigerator is completely empty, I whine, which now rings ironic seeing as we were in multiple groceries today. I suggest we go to Discovery or just walk half a block to Il Posto Accanto and drink until we are hungry again, and John likes the second idea better.

It’s early and yet the bar and inside tables are already full. Maybe it is nicer sitting on the sidewalk under the heat lamps anyway, we decide. We sit side-by-side, each of us facing out,  since that is how the tables are arranged, and SantaCon makes for good people-watching. The restaurant is festively hung with large paper snowflakes that prompt a pair of girls in white fur-collared cardigans that tie at the bust and no undershirts to stop in drunk wonderment. “We should be in there, we could go in there,” they collectively realize, giggling at their own senses of adventure.

“This might be a disaster,” mutters John. Luckily, our waiter feels much the same and tells them all the tables are reserved once the girls muster the courage to inquire—a lie quickly revealed to us when two fashion writers stroll in reservation-less.

My favorite part of Il Posto, other than its proximity and that I once saw Debi Mazar here, is the menu’s daily specials page. I mean the page itself, and how it is written. For example, today they have “Tagliolini Tartufo Bianco finallyyyyyyy” and the description reads, “I like to wait to serve these beauties until they are perfectly ripe and intoxicating. We prepare special tagliolini using just the yolk of the organic golden yolk eggs sautéed with butter and covered in shaved Italian white truffles from the ‘Truffle Lady’s’ dad who harvests them in ‘Le Marche.’”

We end up ordering a carafe of red wine and fried anchovies with friarelli peppers to share. I also get spaghetti alla chitarra con bottarga. I forget what John gets as his main. There are some holiday parties I briefly consider but, as it turns out, I feel too emotionally exhausted to go to Brooklyn.

Sunday, December 10
I wake up with a now-familiar sense of dread and occupy myself with work and cleaning. I get a text from the writer Audrey Wollen about joining her mother, her boyfriend, and our friend, the writer Janique Vigier for a lunch of C& B sandwiches at Audrey’s apartment, which I wouldn’t miss for basically anything.

I get dressed and walk over, in the rain, and eat half of a chicken sandwich (“chicken breast avocado cheddar cheese lemon juice”) that comes wrapped in wax paper and foil. I love C& B. Everyone does. Leslie makes me a perfect cup of Earl Grey with half and half, asking from the kitchen if I like to leave the tea bag sitting in the mug. “No,” I venture, and discover this was a trick question, kind of, because her disembodied voice then says, “Some people like that. I find it unacceptable.”

We all take a car to Light Industry, an arts organization in Brooklyn that is raising money for Palestine Legal by hosting a rare screening of the late Peter Wollen’s only feature film, Friendship’s Death. Audrey gives a moving speech and then we see it, an eerily timely sci-fi from 1987. When the lights come back on, it is still raining out, and we are all hungry again.

The same group of us that came here together pile into another car and ride back to the East Village, then pile into the York, my new favorite bar on Avenue B, where we meet more people who were at the screening.

Without thinking about my chicken lunch, I order the York chicken sandwich, simply because I have had it here and it is great. This one is fried chicken, lettuce, pickles, and ketchup. I’m historically kind of against chicken at restaurants, but everyone has the capacity to change, I guess. The whole table orders a burger and a drink each, and for some reason none of us take advantage of the happy hour special, which is any sandwich plus fries and a beer for $12. My drink is a dirty gin martini and it is only 5:30 p.m. Listing the rest of the drinks I have tonight is a little embarrassing, so I won’t, but I keep using the excuse that it is before 10 p.m. to order more. I end the night with a hot spiked cider that is ladled from a small cauldron and garnished with an orange slice.

There are holiday parties every day this week, and I plan to attend as many as I can. It’s good for me to stay busy, even if it means subjecting others to my mood, potentially compounding it. Looking back over what I have written, I should say that when I’m this pensive, I don’t eat as much and I drink more, so these days have been atypical in that regard, or at least I hope so.