Remember going out? Remember meeting your friends for a few drinks and then walking a little wobbly to the bathroom, where you preened in the mirror and then in the ambient glow obviously designed to inspire moments exactly like this, you caught a glimpse of yourself and thought, "I look… good???" Maybe you took a mirror selfie of the person reflected back at you, in a highly personal, very specific moment of really feeling yourself.
After a BBC story made the rounds online this weekend, people on every social media platform started sharing the last "normal" photos on their phones, collectively longing for the days of family gatherings, trips out of town, and not just seeing but maybe even hugging our friends in public. While my last "normal" photo, technically, was a picture of a doughnut, it was the one just before it that made me feel a very particular pang of longing for "normal" life: a selfie taken in a restaurant bathroom, just as I'd done in so many restaurants before it.
That night, I'd gone to a book reading, then figured, while I was out later than usual for a Tuesday, why not also treat myself to a mildly decadent meal? At a restaurant near the venue, I ordered a too-sweet bourbon cocktail and a plate of poutine. In the bathroom, I posed surrounded by overflowing green plants in front of the black-and-white toile wallpaper, which I found cute. It was a simple moment of appreciation from a nice night. Five days later, Governor Cuomo ordered the shutdown of New York City's bars and restaurants, and not long after that, he issued a "stay home" order for all non-essential workers.
Things have not been the same since. Now, the reel of restaurant bathroom selfies on my phone is a reminder of the absence of celebratory dinners, post-work friend hangs, and date nights. From those outings, I have pictures of friends and blurry shots of food, but the restaurant (or bar) selfie is particularly evocative. It's like a catalog of your best individual moments—you don't take a selfie in a restaurant mirror when you feel bad about yourself.
Plenty of people have mourned the closure of the restaurants and bars; for Bon Appétit, writer Rachel Khong opened a pretend restaurant, complete with a menu hand-painted in watercolor, and writer Scaachi Koul lamented the loss of eating alone around others. Grub Street asked famous New Yorkers the first place they plan to go out to eat. To people with the privilege of eating out in restaurants often enough to miss them, it's a loss of camaraderie, celebration, atmosphere, and the feeling of curated experience.
There are, undoubtedly, many much more serious considerations surrounding the loss of restaurants and bars: The industry's pummeling is not only a failure of government support, but a huge blow to undocumented workers, immigrants, small business owners, farmers, fishermen, artisans, food systems, supply chains, and everyone involved in the restaurant and bar ecosystem. Missing restaurants for their experiential side is a privileged and minor concern.
But if we are talking about moments that we miss—which we all need a reminder of sometimes—then that moment in front of the restaurant's bathroom mirror is one worth longing for as well. Often, I find the restaurant bathroom selfie evokes an experience more than a picture of a plate of food. Scrolling through the ones I've taken in different cities through the years, I remember perfect spring days followed by a nice meal, frustrating travel experiences culminating in a relaxing sit-down dinner, and fleeting moments of self-assurance.
You take a picture in a restaurant bathroom mirror mostly because you feel a momentary sense of confidence and contentment. You like the decor, the wallpaper, the mirror that will frame you just right and make people wonder where you are; perhaps the bathroom was even designed with elements specifically put in place because of how common this type of selfie is. You may feel like the lighting was chosen exactly for this purpose: to make people stop and indulge in a little vanity for a second. You take a photo because you want to preserve the good hairstyles, the good makeup, and the good skin days of the best nights out. You might pose with a friend, cementing a time you both felt the same way.
While restaurants and bars are inherently celebratory, the selfie you take in the bathroom is a celebration of your life and yourself moving through it. The food you eat and the people you dine with at the table are a shared public experience, but the restaurant bathroom selfie is private proof of the experience of dining out and the individual joy it might give you in a given moment. You might never even post these selfies online, but keep them like a little journal of past experiences.
We can take all the selfies we want at home, but they will only remind us of this current context, which is anything but celebratory. In the modern world, there are many big things that should justifiably make us sad, mad, and rise up in resistance. Sometimes, amid all that, it's a relief to shift our focus to the smallest things and the minute experiences we often take for granted.
At the end of the day, the restaurant bathroom selfie is an easy thing to live without. But like our last "normal" photo, reflecting on the image of ourselves in a space made for self-appreciation and celebration can be a reminder of all the things we are currently missing.