I confess: I did not have a dry January. Several of my friends did, but with the world in disarray, I figured a more realistic personal goal would be to aim for a “drier” month to launch what promises to be another epically eventful year.

And much to my surprise, I’ve enjoyed the experience. Seeing social-media glamor shots of booze-free potables is what first drew me in, but my new fascination with non-alcoholic beverages hit an all-time high when I picked up a copy of Julia Bainbridge’s “Good Drinks: Alcohol-Free Recipes for When You’re Not Drinking for Whatever Reason.”

Released this October, “Good Drinks” is already out for a third print run – a remarkable achievement, especially for a cocktail book about drinks that are all alcohol-free. The recipes shimmer with a nuanced, grown-up sensibility, especially beverages like her G&T-adjacent Verjus Spritz that echo traditional mixed drinks in method and style.

This Thanksgiving, one of Bainbridge’s tweets also turned me on to Thomson & Scott “Noughty,” a zero-alcohol organic sparkling Chardonnay. I read a few reviews and bought a bottle, figuring it would fit right in with my January plans, even if it wasn’t likely to be very good – my experience with every other non-alcoholic wine I’ve tasted.

Little did I suspect that several weeks after popping that first cork, I’d be buying an entire case of the stuff ($15.99/bottle plus shipping from sampsonfamilywines.com).

Dry, with a Prosecco-like fruity crispness, Noughty is, according to Thomson & Scott founder Amanda Thomson, vinified just like a Blanc de Blanc champagne, then filtered and de-alcoholized at a low temperature. Minimizing interventions produces a 0% alcohol-by-volume sparkler that is low-calorie (14 kcal/serving) and astoundingly similar to regular wine.

This month, Noughty has taken over as my go-to bottle when I’m serving fish or pasta. It also achieves the oenophilic miracle of pairing well with many salads. Indeed, with no alcohol to spar with volatile, herby aromatics, it might very well be Green Goddess dressing’s perfect match.

***

What I miss most about restaurants changes from week to week. Sometimes, it’s the jolts of surprise from a meandering tasting menu. Other times, it’s the sensation of scooting across pleather seats as I make space for a friend in a booth.

But frequently, I miss the Potemkin Village of the dining experience: the knowledge that, just out of sight in the kitchen, chaos reigns. And more than that, I love the comforting fiction of a server whose calmness belies the back-of-house frenzy erupting just a few feet away.

Characters in restaurant kitchen video game Overcooked! Courtesy of Ghost Town Games

Even if I wanted to, I could never recreate that experience in my own home. The closest I have come is through video games. In particular, Ghost Town Games’ Overcooked! series that includes Overcooked! 2 and Overcooked!: Special Edition (available for Playstation, Switch, Xbox and PC, $4.99-$24.99).

Each of these cooperative games allows you and a few friends (online or local) to join forces as chefs in a virtual kitchen. As orders come in, you collect and prep ingredients, cook and plate dishes, then push them through the pass. The pace starts out leisurely, with a few onions here and a tomato there, then accelerates as recipes become more complex and dirty dishes stack up (yes, you are also your own dishwasher).

Gameplay relies on speed and attention to sequence, and – just like in a real-world kitchen – becoming an expert requires players to communicate and develop efficiencies. More than once this month, I’ve reminded friends of the old restaurant maxim, “Hands full in, hands full out,” (the cooking equivalent of “never leave a room empty-handed.”). Unfortunately for my blood pressure, I’ve also found myself pleading, “Could you slice a few tomatoes and fry that burger before the timer runs out, please?!”

Ultimately, Overcooked! might be frantic and silly, but it’s a fun, pandemic-friendly way to spend time with friends. And best of all: Nobody will end up crying in the walk-in fridge.

***

If it’s the front-of-house experience you’re missing, look no further than social media app TikTok, where a search for the hashtag #serverlife will yield hours of comical, sometimes trenchant short videos about the ups and downs of waiting tables.

Among the funniest in the “Restaurant TikTok” genre is Los Angeles comedian Drew Talbert (@drew_talbert on Tiktok and @drewtalbert on Instagram). Talbert’s experiential, single-actor sketches take place at the fictional Bistro Huddy, where customers are difficult and the kitchen staff downright obscene. Talbert plays every role himself, from beleaguered server, to flat-cap-sporting bartender, to hipster patron in a bobbed, fluorescent wig that might have been stolen from the prop trailer of “Run Lola Run.”

That hairpiece makes a cameo in his “This is Ridiculous” video, one of his best, along with “Karen vs. Karen,” “How Cooks Answer Questions” and “Bottomless Brunch.”

Comedian Alexandra Torres, known as “Alex Serves” (@alexserves on both TikTok and Instagram) is another of my favorites. Like Talbert, Torres dons wigs and faux facial hair to act out all the parts in her short videos. But @alexserves is more acerbic, using a darker humor to poke fun at entitled, frequently sexist diners and bumbling DoorDash deliverers.

If you don’t know where to start on her channel, just look for any video whose preview features Torres in her signature cardboard mustache. From there, check out “Rating things people say to servers” and “Server rap.” Both showcase plenty of Torres’ sly wit and highlight her willingness to turn her biting humor back on herself.

Andrew Ross has written about food and dining in New York and the United Kingdom. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is the recipient of three recent Critic’s Awards from the Maine Press Association.
Contact him at: [email protected]
Twitter: @AndrewRossME


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