There's a Thai restaurant in my neighborhood that isn't exactly destination dining, but offers a reliable pad see ew when you need one. The gai kratiam, chicken with garlic sauce, always has too much sauce in a good way. And the woon sen, glass noodles with vegetables, is the kind of dish you want to just keep eating because the noodles are hot and twist around a fork really well.
A few more blocks north, there's a Tex-Mex place with no air conditioning and steam tables of beans, rice and more. If you order a single cheese enchilada, you get a massive plate of a baked cheesy tortilla, plus a ton of sides including chips and a generous portion of guacamole. It's not the best enchilada you've ever had, and you can probably make better guacamole at home, but this giant dinner portion is absolutely perfect when you crave a lot of food, quickly.
Then there's the really juicy burger from the bar that deserves more media attention than it gets, the vegetarian combination at the Ethiopian restaurant that you should get to-go so strangers don't have to watch you get spicy lentils all over your clothes, the foul from the Yemeni restaurant that rarely has female customers, the super crispy chicken parmigiana from the diner that's always too quiet and the mofongo from the Latin American place that is always dry, yet you still order it.
None of these restaurants are great. There are many wonderful restaurants in my neighborhood, but these aren't it. These places also aren't terrible, though. They are that step above mediocre -- perhaps the food is good but the service isn't. Or the atmosphere is just too drab. They aren't good enough to recommend to friends, but perfect for when you feel a little lazy and don't want to cook. They are the places you go to because you are a neighborhood resident and they feel more like home than the really good place that people are trekking from far away to try.
I have a constantly rotating list on my phone of three dozen restaurants I would like to try. Maybe they are high-profile newcomers that are getting a lot of buzz. Or there's that restaurant that I "should" have gone to long ago, but just have never made it to yet. But I would be much more sad if one of my local "mediocre-plus" restaurants closed than if a really good one I never got to try did.
Last month, Frank Bruni of the New York Times wrote about the joys of being a regular at several excellent restaurants. His choices are smart ones, and favorites among avid New York City diners. And that's not a problem -- these places are popular because they serve reliably good food.
But I feel more personal attachment for places that aren't going to show up on anyone's top ten list, despite also enjoying the same lamb burger Bruni is drawn to. Because the sensation of "feeling at home" isn't just about a comfortable apartment and nice living space. It's also knowing that after a long day, the dinner waiting for you at any of your local places tastes better to you than it does to anyone else.