Once mostly the purview of senior citizens and parents with small children, the early-bird dinner is making a comeback. The pandemic changed the way people dine out: Less commuting to work, combined with the newfound need to snag an outdoor table while it’s still light or warm out, means that 5 and 6 p.m. are now some of the most coveted time slots at restaurants across the country. The trend confirms something I’ve known for a long time: Early dinner is the best dinner.
I wasn’t always a devotee. In my teens and early 20s, I was embarrassed to eat out with my parents, who were often the first customers through the door. Eating in broad daylight in an empty dining room seemed both undignified and unglamorous. As I got old enough to travel, I experienced the energy and allure of late-night meals in other places—like Madrid, where even small children ate dinner at times well past my high-school curfew.
But in my 30s, as I transitioned into freelance work and took up long-distance running, I realized my parents were right. Not only were restaurants loud and crowded at prime time, but late dinners made it harder to fall asleep and left me feeling heavy and sluggish the following morning. And after being tethered to my laptop all day long at my kitchen table—which doubles as my desk—I was usually eager for a change of scenery around 5 p.m.
Before the pandemic, my husband and I spent nearly every Friday night at Miller Union. We’d stroll through the door around 5:10 and take our seats at the crook of the wooden bar: no wait, no reservations, no hovering diners clamoring for vodka sodas while their tables were being set up. At that hour, the atmosphere was informal and relaxed: suit jackets not yet donned, wine reps wrapping up afternoon tastings, owners often enjoying their own meals before the evening rush. Over our first round of drinks (Negroni or boulevardier for him, chenin blanc for me), we chatted with whoever was working that shift, learning about the bartender’s next obstacle race, the bar back’s wine certification exam, the co-owner’s latest addition to his menagerie of pets. We never felt hurried or pressured to order, even on the night that half the bar was blocked off for an unnamed celebrity expected to make an appearance with his entourage. And when we did settle in for dinner, the three courses were paced leisurely over 90 minutes or even two hours, still getting us out of the restaurant before the dining room filled up.
The pandemic has only hardened my commitment to early-bird dinner. I often start my workday at 7 a.m., and, after 18 months of Zoom calls (and listening to my husband on Zoom calls), I’m eager to shut my laptop at the end of business hours. I know which restaurants are open all day (Star Provisions, Storico Fresco Alimentari) and what time to call for my weekly Taqueria del Sol takeout (4:45 p.m.), and I’m even back to enjoying the occasional late-afternoon patio or bar dinner at Miller Union. All to ensure that I’m in my pajamas by 7 p.m., with the lights turned down and Netflix queued up—because the only thing better than an early dinner is an early bedtime.
This article appears in our October 2021 issue.