Writing about restaurants was the last thing I wanted to do with my career. I used to poke fun at people who did—them and their poetry about microgreens. I thought food writing was a frilly, elitist exercise, what people in ascots talked about at their Aspen timeshares. I was forced by 2008’s terrible economy into this line of work (I needed a job and this was the one available). And I saw pretty immediately how wrong I was. Most things in life can be explained by looking at the way America eats, drinks, and communes in public spaces: culture, religion, economy, ecology, politics, ethics, values, all of it.
Over the last decade, I’ve tried so many ways to explain exactly why restaurants are so essential. That old sharing of bread. A place where strangers become friends, friends become closer friends, partners, lovers. Most recently—with the rise of automation and kiosks and apps that deliver the food to your door—I’ve worried we might be systematically dismantling what’s sacred about this space.
But no words can express it like having a Cuban sandwich and a glass of wine at Nic’s did.
A thin, elegantly dressed woman at Nic’s pours us a glass and shares one of her stories. Her family member was stuck in traffic trying to get out that day. Panic hadn’t fully manifested. Running was an option, not yet the only one. The one road out, Highway 191, had clogged to a stop. The family member caught a glimpse of the fire in his rearview mirror and whatever he saw—however big, however fast, however unfathomably predatorial—made him open his door and run. He ran fourteen miles downhill on boots and adrenaline until he found shelter. The engine was still idling when the fire took the truck, like it took everything else.
There are 15 locals who work at Nic’s deli and wine bar. All of them lost their homes in the Camp Fire. Every person is a lost home. And still, this bright, clean box in the hills—with the lightly dressed lobster roll, the delicious Cuban with pulled pork and Dijon, the beer, the wine, and the warm chatter—is a riot of hope.
Restaurants all over Butte County became the places for 25,000 people without a place. Danielle Ius, owner of Chico’s breakfast restaurant, Sin of Cortez, explained that for the first few months customers said they just needed to sit in a familiar room. Feed each other, like they would at home. Chit-chat, as they had at their own dining tables. Restaurants served as a warm, well-lit shelter, a town hall with French toast, an ad hoc newsroom, a spot of prayer and group therapy, a bar to show wounds and close them. For the first five months after the fires, Ius wore waterproof mascara to work.
When Camp Fire raged, friends sent me photos of the skies I used to live under, now sick with smoke. It was the worst fire in California’s recorded history. You can intellectualize that fact. News stories and online videos can make us pause, gasp, pray. But they don’t bruise your blood like walking through it does. Up here in Paradise it is gutted earth, a crazy deletion. People have always lived here for the hill quiet, but there’s a scar on the silence now.
The numbers seem too big to be true. Nearly nineteen thousand structures burned; 11,500 homes. Five thousand people helped clear the rubble, hauling 3.6 million tons of concrete, steel, ash, contaminated soil and debris—twice the amount removed from 9/11. Trucks heaped with wreckage slowed traffic for months, traveling 28.2 million miles to recycling facilities and landfills, the equivalent of 59 trips to the moon.
Then the most crushing numbers: eighty-five people died. Twenty-seven thousand people lived here, and, overnight, there were 2,000 left. A year later, it’s barely 4,000. Eighty-five percent of Paradise has yet to return.
Restaurants are as vital as organs, especially now.
If you’re looking for hope in the wake of tragedy, follow the food.
Nicki Jones was among the first to come back. Jones is one of those people who appears to have respectfully declined the natural aging process. She does 74 like most of us do 44. Her hair is white as brochure teeth, each strand falling like an elegant, cursive “J” above her prim brow. Her blue eyes are fully plugged in, crisp with humor and wit.
Jones and her husband moved to Paradise decades ago. They’d looked all over the Bay Area for a home, and immediately felt that burrowing instinct here. She lost him years back. Then Camp Fire took their house and her business, a clothing boutique. Two months later, she returned. So many questions to answer after a tragedy, but “Where is home?” wasn’t one of hers. She bought a little corner spot on the main road and named it Nic’s—the first new restaurant to open in Paradise after the fires.
My wife Claire and I collect ourselves before walking in. We know locals have seen their share of visitor tears by now. We can’t keep dragging them back to that day. At some point, that can’t remain the point. So we try to open our eyes to Nic’s story without letting it break us. It is so, so hard. The first time you see what happened here, to these people, the grief gets inside you.
Jones diverts any and all praise to April Kelly, a Paradise native and experienced restaurateur who runs the deli. Kelly has 14 family members in the area, and her home was the only one left. What strikes me most is how quick and free she is with a laugh. There had to be a stretch of time, months maybe, when laughter wasn’t appropriate here. If that’s true, it’s ceased being so. Laughter’s back.
They’ve annexed the spot next door to reopen Jones’ clothing boutique. I buy a trucker hat. They added a dining room that can be cordoned off for meetings. Hundreds, if not thousands, of meetings will be held here as the future of Paradise is rewritten. Live bands play on weekends. Locals dance.
Claire and I need to talk about it, but don’t want to make them talk about it. It’s pretty obvious they know. They see it in us, probably see it in every new arrival. And so they patiently walk us through the tragedy, the updates, the process. They’re the victims and yet they become our consolers. The age-old joke about bartenders also being therapists has never rung more true. Before we walk out the door, they segue into the stories of hope, the newfound strength of community, that sharp wisdom of what’s really, truly important in life that people can only get through loss.
I attended Chico State from 1991 to 1997. I was brought back to help shine some light on these restaurants, the cooks and owners and dishwashers working their butts off in a tough industry to make something memorable for their community. I agreed to write a story for Explore Butte County about my experience, and this is that. The hole in Butte became my story, as I think it would for anyone returning at this point in time. To write anything else would be superficial, dishonest. But in the epicenter of that hole I saw the restaurants, filling that hole.
Restaurants are as vital as organs, especially now. If you’re looking for hope in the wake of tragedy, follow the food.