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Considering that the pandemic is still raging, the annual travel lists that come out at this time of year have taken on a new shape: Rather than promoting destinations, the focus is on the places that people want to visit when things open back up, visions buttressed by more personal recollections. Travel is still elusive for most, which is all the more reason to dream of trips past and future.

Since we like to travel on a smaller scale – for us, the neighborhood is the ideal unit of exploration – we launched our own take on the annual travel list, a “Neighborhoods to Visit” guide, in 2018 as a way to feature areas off the main tourist trail that our correspondents were excited to explore.

But as we contemplated what to do with the guide in this pandemic year, we found ourselves focusing less on the travel component and more on the unique culinary cultures of the cities where we work. Will they survive this strange storm? What will happen to the people who sustain them? And how will Covid-19 reshape neighborhood life?

So instead of picking a new list of places to dream about, and ideally visit once travel resumes, we’re revisiting the neighborhoods featured in our 2020 guide – Sant Andreu in Barcelona; Fatih/Akşemsettin Street in Istanbul; Alvalade in Lisbon; Cinq-Avenues in Marseille; Narvarte and Del Valle in Mexico City; and Kiyosumi Shirakawa in Tokyo – to get a better sense of how the pandemic has affected our cities on a more local level and what their road to recovery might look like.

Barcelona: Sant Andreu

Click here to read last year’s dispatch from Sant Andreu

This past year has altered large swaths of Barcelona, with the touristic center taking perhaps the biggest hit. But even the modest neighborhood of Sant Andreu del Palomar, a former village that encapsulates the spirit of Barcelona barrio life, has seen its share of struggles.

We revisited the neighborhood, which is comprised of wide avenues lined with large residential buildings, small streets with two-story houses, and old factories transformed into community and cultural centers of different kinds, to see how the shops, bars and restaurants woven into its fabric have fared. What we found is that Sant Andreu is holding up as best it can, with residents doing their part to sustain their favorite local spots.

That’s not to say it’s been easy. Many of the city’s small establishments have struggled with the various restrictions and lockdowns, which will continue for the foreseeable future. Currently, the permitted opening hours are as follows: breakfast from 7:30 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. (mostly at bars and cafeterias) and lunch from 1 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. (mostly at tapas bars and restaurants), with only takeaway and delivery service allowed for dinner. It doesn’t give them much to work with.

We already saw how our friends at the excellent TocaTeca were coping with the situation during the summer: Forced to reduce the number of tables inside, they enlarged their terrace and increased their takeaway offerings to include packages for the “vermouth hour” and meal-prep kits, like one for a delicious rice dish, similar to paella, made of cuttlefish and prawns, complete with a wooden spoon that makes you feel as if you’re actually dining in the restaurant. Likewise, Bodega Lluis, a traditional spot that has been weathering ups and downs since 1955, has expanded their offerings to include a takeaway service of tapas for the vermut hour, in addition to the bottled and bulk wine that’s normally available.

Unfortunately, two of the neighborhood’s classic spots have disappeared, although for natural, non-pandemic-related causes: First, Taverna Can Roca, the wonderful old-school eatery that had been recently revived by new ownership, closed again in early 2020, before the pandemic even started. Then the owners of Rabasseda, the iconic restaurant under the old market porticoes, retired in August. A new spot, Els Somiatruites, has opened in its place – it was a bold move to launch a new project on the premises of a formerly beloved restaurant, particularly in these challenging conditions, but so far they have had a warm reception.

Another relative newcomer to the neighborhood is La Bodegueta de Sant Andreu, a tiny tapas bar-restaurant with a bodega soul that opened in 2019. As Pepe, one of owners, explained to us, this past year was extremely hard for them, from the various lockdowns, which came right when business had started to pick up, to family succumbing to Covid-19. But they have kept La Bodegueta running thanks to delivery and takeaway, as well as their medium-sized terrace on Rambla Fabra i Puig, which complements the few remaining indoor tables.

They have a few things going for them, namely their love for the neighborhood and a wonderful product. The friendly team lives in Sant Andreu, and their dedication to the area shines through. And then there’s the simple menu packed with classic tapas and plates of croquettes and bombas to pair with vermut. Although all are outstanding, our favorite is the Sant Andreu bomba, a large mashed potato ball filled with pork and beef, which is then battered with bread crumbs, fried like a croquette and served with a delicious spicy sauce made with a sofrito of onion, tomato and pancetta, sweet wine and a touch of Tabasco. A blackboard in the bar describes how this super bomba is dedicated to the victims of the only bomb that fell in the area during the Spanish Civil War, another terrible moment that the local community overcame together. – Paula Mourenza

Istanbul: Fatih/Akşemsettin Street

Click here to read last year’s dispatch from Fatih/Akşemsettin Street

Like many lively cities, Istanbul’s vitality has been severely threatened by the pandemic. A number of districts, especially those with a high density of bars, cafés and restaurants, have emptied out as the establishments that brought in the crowds have either been forced to close down or are limited to providing delivery and takeout services. As a result, many coffee shops and eateries are struggling to stay afloat. In neighborhoods across the city, a dismal array of empty storefronts serves as a jarring reminder of how much economic damage the pandemic has caused.

Yet in contrast, Akşemsettin Street in the Fatih district was as buzzing as ever during a recent walkabout. It came as something of a surprise – we haven’t visited the area, which is home to a large Syrian population and has a stretch of Syrian-run businesses that include numerous excellent restaurants, food stands, markets, bakeries and sweet shops, in months. There were lines out the door at shawarma joints and falafel shops – since indoor dining is off-limits, takeaway is the only option. Saruja, renowned for its excellent Damascus-style home cooking, was open, as was Hadramot, our introduction to the delectable world of Yemeni cuisine.

Bouz Al-Jidi, a small, charmingly decorated hole-in-the-wall, had blocked off its miniature dining room with the falafel station. We popped in for a falafel wrap, a filling, delicious affair at 7 TL (less than $1). The bread came straight out of the oven, and the falafel was crispy and sung with the sharp notes of coriander seeds. The young chef handed us a sample of the falafel – a delicious, dimpled disc – as he made our wrap fresh to order.

Leaving Bouz al-Jidi with falafel in hand, we made our way to the Fatih Mosque and stopped at Bonce ve Mevid, a tiny stand specializing in fantastic Syrian-style coffee flavored with potent, freshly ground cardamom seeds. We devoured our falafel in the courtyard of the mosque, and by the time it was finished our coffee had cooled down enough to sip. On the walk over, we noticed that practically every small Syrian coffee shop sold yerba mate, the flagship South American hot beverage that Syrians brought back home after migrating to the continent for work in the 19th century. We purchased a bombilla, a metal straw used to drink mate, and a bag of mate produced in Argentina but packed in Syria and with a label printed in Arabic, which we had heard was a favorite brand among Syrians.

Fatih’s main street was brimming with shoppers, and if it weren’t for the masks and dining rooms converted to takeout stations, it wouldn’t have seemed any different than last year. Tasting some of our favorite delicacies from the area was a comforting reminder of Istanbul’s endurance, of the kinetic energy this city still harbors, even though it is difficult to feel on some, if not most days during this dreadful, dreary period. Sometimes the act of eating a delicious sandwich on a park bench, while the air is crisp and the blue afternoon sky hovers blissfully above the city, is enough to conjure feelings of inspiration and awe that keep us going until things return normal, whenever that may be. – Paul Benjamin Osterlund

Lisbon: Alvalade

Click here to read last year’s dispatch from Alvalade

After a year that altered so many lives and businesses, it was surprising to visit northern Lisbon’s Alvalade neighborhood and see that not much has changed – at least at first glance. Crisscrossing the neighborhood, it appears livelier than most of Lisbon at the moment. Many traditional businesses are still going strong, with pharmacies and the Mercado de Alvalade playing an essential role in daily pandemic life. But for the owners of small restaurants and tascas, this has been a year of challenges, with some being forced to close up shop.

On the sunny winter day that we visit, Avenida da Igreja, the neighborhood’s central thoroughfare, is bursting with life: There are people shopping, while others are seated at cafés and restaurants (both on outdoor terraces and indoors). We head towards Mariazinha, one of our favorite shops for coffee, tea and nuts, and get behind four other people waiting in line to enter the shop, which originally opened in Baixa in 1934 but moved to Alvalade in 1957. Once we finally step inside (only two people are allowed at a time in small stores), we ask about the line. Is it because the government announced a new lockdown that would start in three days? One staff member explains that it’s been like this all year: “The younger generations started to shop here in the past five years, a trend that’s only increased during the pandemic. We’ll stay open during this new lockdown, and hopefully people will keep shopping.”

A few blocks down, near Avenida da Igreja, one of the neighborhood’s new establishments includes a Bertrand bookstore (the company has outposts all over Portugal). Print books seem popular around here, and not just for Christmas – as the staff tells it, several generations of readers, including children, have been flocking to the shop.

Thriving old-school pastelarias like Carcassone are still busy, with their parras (a leaf-shaped pastry with an egg filling) and jesuíta (a pastry with an egg filling and a merengue top layer) being a favorite morning or afternoon snack. At the same time, a new crop of bakeries has taken root. Like Isco Pão e Vinho, which quickly amassed a legion of loyal clients with their heavenly breakfast and lunch offerings, as well as their delicious sourdough bread and pastries. Meanwhile, Conchanata, the brilliant Italian gelato spot, weathered the initial lockdown and has kept their outdoor terrace open throughout the winter, whereas they used to close their doors completely in the colder months.

Some spots are barely keeping their heads above water after struggling to survive not only the initial lockdown from March to May, but also the weekend lockdowns of November and December, when they had to close at 1 p.m. on Saturdays. Os Courenses, a traditional restaurant known for its Saturday cozido à Portuguesa, saw a steep drop in business on their best-selling day. They opened for takeaway, but it wasn’t the same. Adega Solar Minhoto is still busy but has a very different set-up. In addition to the weekend lockdowns that put an end to their hectic Saturdays, their capacity has diminished significantly due to Covid-19 sanitary protocols. This has been the biggest issue for small restaurants, together with the weekend lockdowns. Solar Minhoto will continue doing takeaway but they don’t offer delivery, mainly because the delivery companies’ high fees make it difficult for restaurants to turn a profit. The outrage over these charges was so widespread that the Portuguese government has announced a 20 percent cap for the new lockdown that just started.

Sadly, not all of the neighborhood’s classic spots were able to pull through. Adega da Bairrada, a 70-year-old tasca, closed its door for good shortly after the first lockdown, no longer serving the pernil (the pork shank) and the fried octopus fillets that attracted so many Lisboetas to Alvalade. It’s a sad reminder that for many businesses, there was no second chance.

Likewise for many clients it has been a year of austerity, as many jobs were lost and people stopped dining out. Yet they still needed to eat, which meant the Alvalade market was busy with deliveries of fish and produce, especially to the neighborhood’s aging residents. It seems as if time has reversed, and the market is once again the beating heart of neighborhood life. And that is set to continue, as a new lockdown began last Friday. For at least one month, all non-essential shops and businesses will remain closed, and restaurants can only offer takeaway and delivery. The future may look uncertain for some of these spots, but the market will likely keep humming along. – Célia Pedroso

Marseille: Cinq-Avenues

Click here to read last year’s dispatch from Cinq-Avenues

During Marseille’s first coronavirus lockdown in March 2020, citizens were restricted from venturing more than 1 km from their homes. Shopping local became more than ethos – it was essential. Consequently, neighborhoods with well-stocked shops fared better than others. Like, for example, Cinq-Avenues.

One of the city’s 111 quartiers, Cinq-Avenues has a village-like ambiance – it’s the type of place where residents are on a first name basis with vendors at the outdoor market as well as the owners of independent shops. With people cooking at home due to restaurant closures, socializing bans and more free time, the neighborhood’s abundance of epicurean addresses was well poised to feed their cravings. They also gave people a reason to go out, vital for Cinq-Avenues’ large population of seniors.

To make up for 2020’s profit losses, some Cinq-Avenues establishments looked for ways to boost sales and improve customer service – for those near and far. Art de la Fromagerie partnered with local e-bike deliverers to bring platters of farmstead raclette cheese and fondue kits to Marseillais, turning their homes into Alpine chalets when nearby ski slopes were shuttered. The Corsican épicerie U Mio Paese and the seafood stand Maison Calambo also set up delivery service – the former hiring a new staff member and the latter buying a scooter, so they could avoid the high surcharges of UberEats.

The two shops found silver linings among 2020’s wreckage. “Corsicans living in Marseille couldn’t travel, so they came here,” explains U Mio Paese’s Marc-Antoine. Maison Calambo welcomed former clients of famed écailler (“oyster seller”) Toinou, which closed in March, and added more fish to their menu to compensate for the lack of in-person dining.

Bar Tabac 5 Avenues redid their exterior during the first lockdown, though we prefer the old-school cursive of the original sign. Sales were down 50 percent each month at the corner bar. In spite of cigarettes, lottery tickets, and to-go espressos, the neighborhood’s watering hole lost essential café and pastis sales. Frustrated by France putting “people’s health over the economy,” the owner laments, “My grandfather said we must eat to live, but how do we pay for food without money?”

Monsieur Madame is equally downtrodden. Business plummeted at the all-day café, and the government aid doesn’t cover their expenses or the loss of sales, particularly crucial when the business is the couple’s sole source of income. “We want to work, not receive handouts,” says co-owner Myriam, who has been forced to sell the beloved vintage wares that made the café so charming. “People don’t realize the trickle-down-effect of lost business,” she continues, reinforcing the impact on vendors, like local roaster Café Luciani, when people don’t buy coffee.

In spite of the year’s hardships, Cinq-Avenues continued to grow. Two artisanal boulangeries, Boni and the second location of popular Pain Pan, opened up. The family-owned Pachamama Sud food truck rolled into the farmers’ market, serving empanadas, tacos and other Latin American bites for which the restaurant, located in Cours Julien, is known (fortuitously, the truck was planned before the pandemic hit and has allowed for a steady stream of income while the restaurant remains shuttered). Since August, Paco Rôtisserie has dished up roast chickens, succulent ribs and hearty sandwiches. Their takeout-only space and home-style fare are apt for the times as we crave comfort food more than ever.

Hence why Bricoleur de Douceurs’ sales of their fantastic pâtisseries stayed consistent in spite of having to close their salon de thé. “It’s because we all need comfort,” shares the counterperson as he hands us a slice of cake au citron. Which Cinq-Avenues makes easy to find. – Alexis Steinman

Mexico City: Narvarte and Del Valle

On a weekday in a normal January, the streets of Narvarte and Del Valle would be bustling with workers back to the grind after the holidays and residents enjoying the 70-degree days that are common this time of year. But on our recent jaunt through these two neighborhoods, around midday on a Monday, the scene was quiet – unsurprising given the fact that Mexico City’s second lockdown, which began in December, had recently been extended. A few handfuls of workers occupied the sidewalks and a scattering of residents could be seen shuffling in and out of the local convenience store, as garbage collectors strapped dried-out Christmas trees to their trucks to haul away. Areas of the neighborhoods near the local markets and the small roundabouts with mixed-use housing and commercial space seemed to have a little more action, but overall it was more like a lazy Sunday than a Monday in the city.

Taco stands for the most part seem to be surviving on to-go orders. While the taqueros at Tizne Tacomotora told us that business has taken a nosedive, it seems that the trickle of income from takeout and delivery is at least keeping them alive. With Chilangos’ budgets getting increasingly tighter, street food remains a solid, cheap option for lunch during the workday, and the taco stands and tortilla mills are the only places where we saw actual lines during our visit (a point of contention for some restaurant owners and workers, who believe that the government has been more tolerant of street food vendors during the second lockdown). Some of the bigger taco shops, like Vilsito, have converted to “car service” where you can park up and a waiter will come to your window to take your order. While fun as a throwback to the 1950s (minus the roller skates), car service certainly can’t make up for the hundreds of walk-ins they were once getting nightly.

Most of our favorite cafés and restaurants in the area have been able to ride out the pandemic despite drops of 50 percent or more in sales. There have even been a few success stories.

“We’ve actually done really great,” says Alicia Carranza, who works the counter at the Costra bakery. “We haven’t had to close completely during the entire pandemic.” As for the current lockdown, Alicia says this time around it’s been a little quieter, but between walk-ins and orders they’ve managed to stay afloat. “At least we’re still here!” she says in tired triumph.

Oaxacan restaurant Las Tlayudas had to move out of its large space on Insurgentes Avenue because the rent was so high and they were unable to negotiate it down. But they found a new location on Luz Saviñon Street and were doing well until the most recent shutdown. Now their future looks uncertain.

Octavio Cervera, the owner of the Almanegra Café, told us that of all their locations in the city, the one in Narvarte has far and away sold the most, keeping them afloat throughout these tough months.

“When all this started our flagship location, in terms of volume of sales, was in the one in Roma. We suffered an overall drop of about 80 percent across all our locations. But what was interesting was the location that recovered and became our leader in sales was Narvarte,” he explains.

Both Octavio and Alicia credit the neighborhood for their survival. “We have survived because of the neighbors,” says Alicia.

Narvarte and Del Valle certainly have something going for them that more touristy neighborhoods, like Condesa and Roma to the north, don’t: They are mainly residential and therefore provide a more consistent client base for local businesses.

“Even though staying at home is extremely important right now,” says Octavio, “when people have to go out, they go out in their neighborhoods. We are the neighborhood coffee shop for a lot of people. If you need coffee, you go where you always went, except you can no longer sit down, so instead you take it to go.”

There has been lots of turnover in the neighborhood – not just closures, but openings as well, as people take advantage of cheaper rents, a result of the pandemic. “The locale across the street was a little market of various restaurants and that closed for good, now they are renting the place again. In front of us, they put up a nail place and then closed down. Down the street there are a bunch of places all in a strip, and they have changed operations, closed, and then new places have opened,” says Alicia. This constant shifting is obvious as you walk through the neighborhood, where there are for-sale and for-rent signs everywhere, on both businesses and apartment buildings.

The Mexico City government has offered one-time payments of about US$100 dollars to some workers, and about US$500 to some businesses, but the application process is cumbersome, and the money only stretches so far. In the end, it’s the local community that has kept businesses alive here – a reminder that buying a coffee from your local café and ordering takeout from your favorite neighborhood restaurant is more meaningful than it seems. – Lydia Carey

Tokyo: Kiyosumi Shirakawa

Click here to read last year’s dispatch from Kiyosumi Shirakawa

“Oh, tell me how the neighborhood has changed!” We’re chatting with a woman behind a café counter in Kiyosumi Shirakawa, an area to the east of Tokyo’s Sumida River. “We’re local people so we don’t know!” she exclaims, her eyes above her mask doing all the smiling and her tone indicating a genuine curiosity.

Given the devastation that the coronavirus pandemic has wreaked upon the hospitality industry worldwide, the statement is welcome if unexpected. Even Japan, which experienced only a minor first wave compared to Europe or the US, has seen many restaurant closures as people refrain from outings.

Yet with remote working on the rise and people staying closer to home, some of Tokyo’s suburbs have been bustling in contrast to an unusually quiet city center. Kiyosumi Shirakawa, known as a family neighborhood with a large number of cafés offering takeout drinks, is particularly well set up to tempt locals out for a stroll; in fact, it seems to be thriving.

This exchange with the woman behind the counter takes place at the newly opened Hatameki, a café and cultural space run by Mizuki Ema, an actress and kimono artist. The interior is dark wood, with crafts and knick-knacks for sale by the door and a stage-like platform for performances. The back window peeks into Kiyosumi Teien, a beautiful, strolling landscape garden centered around a sculpted pond with large rock stepping stones.

In conceiving Hatameki, Ema drew inspiration from the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau: “Plant a stake crowned with flowers in the middle of a square; gather the people together there, and you will have a festival.” For her, Hatameki is a place where everyone can become the main characters, and feel free to take one step forward – however small – towards living a life true to themselves.

The menu is small, consisting of two main dishes, designed by an actress acquaintance of Ema’s, and is centered on shiokoji, a natural seasoning made by fermenting rice with koji, the mold we have to thank for miso, soy sauce and sake. This winter, Ema is serving up an umami-rich beef tendon tomato stew with a perfectly boiled egg, the yolk a soft cream.

There are at least 10 restaurants and cafés that have opened in Kiyosumi Shirakawa in the past year, ranging from a Vietnamese restaurant to a Thai joint, a banana juice stand to a natural wine bar. One such spot is Karasu No Su (literally, “Crow’s Nest”), a narrow tachinomi (standing-drinking bar) boasting regional sake and craft gin. According to manager Yoshihiro Ami, who is a gifted conversationalist as well as excellent at recommending sake to match one’s tastes, the bar has built up a late-night following of locals who stop by on their way back home after drinking in the city.

Carrying on the area’s reputation as a coffee hub, the black-tiled has a sleek industrial design to reflect its status as Japan’s first ever café where bread is baked and coffee beans are roasted on site. The roasting process is overseen by a New Zealander and the coffee is made by a Melbourne-trained barista. As expected, their flat white (made properly with a double ristretto, no less) is a smooth delight.

Then, there is Kraft Coffee, born in September from the pandemic itself. Owner Reikou Ou, originally from China, had finally resolved to leave Japan after 14 years. In early 2020, she accepted an offer to work for an IT firm in Malaysia, with the dream of eventually opening her own coffee shop there. Yet shortly afterwards, the borders slammed shut. Ou was wondering what to do when an acquaintance approached her about a new coworking space opening in Kiyosumi Shirakawa, where ideas for a café were brewing. She jumped on board. With five years’ barista experience, Ou has built up a catalogue of specialty beans that she carefully selects for both hand-drip and espresso-based drinks. “Coffee,” she says, “is life itself.”

Kiyosumi Shirakawa is home to several specialty food stores, and we stop by Artichoke, a chocolate atelier that induces happiness simply from the sweet and seductive scent that wafts through the air. “I remember you from last year!” one staff member says with a smile, before explaining that they have seen minimal impact from Covid. “This is a good area for a walk, so people stop by on their way past.” The store continues to collaborate with several other local producers; we sample a devilishly rich Hokkaido butter chocolate, using butter specially made at nearby cheese shop Voice of Cheese.

Since our visit, a sharp rise in coronavirus cases in Tokyo has prompted the Japanese government to issue a second state of emergency and request that people stay home as much as possible. This will no doubt take a toll on businesses. Yet there is something about Kiyosumi Shirakawa that speaks of resilience. During the first state of emergency in April 2020, a local designer created a free poster for restaurants to advertise takeout, building a cohesive local identity. There is camaraderie, rather than competition.

Perhaps it’s not only Hatameki that reflects Rousseau’s open-air festival where the audience becomes the spectacle; perhaps Kiyosumi Shirakawa, itself, becomes a neighborhood in the sense that it is performed by us all. – Phoebe Amoroso

Editor’s note: We will be publishing new dispatches from particular restaurants, markets and food shops in these districts all week. Stay tuned!

Culinary BackstreetsCulinary Backstreets

Published on January 18, 2021

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