At the long polished granite bar at Sushi Time in Plaistow, Beth and David Cacchiotti take their seats. The bartender puts two yellow drinks in front of them.
"Did you just order?" I ask Beth, pointing to her drink.
"I didn't need to order," she replies. "He just knows."
On this Saturday afternoon, it's a Mai Tai. Other days, it's a martini. "I could go either way," she says.
Beth and David Cacciotti live in Atkinson, the next town over. They've both lived in a lot of places, and these days they're looking for a little stability. But after moving here they discovered making new friends isn't what it used to be.
"You know if you don't have any kids in the school system, depending on your activities, it's difficult to make new friends. And this was a good way to give it a try," she says.
She thought that becoming a regular some place would give her that sense of connection to other people. And she found that connection at Sushi Time. It's a family-run business out of an unassuming spot near a GNC and a closed-up diner. Beth and David now come about twice a week.
"It's all the things that you like about your home or your built-in group of friends. It's that ease where you know what to expect. And it makes you happy," she says.
To be clear, Beth and David have friends apart from Sushi Time. But they have made one friend here: the bartender, Jin Lin.
"They all call me Geno," he says. The name "Geno" comes from Philadelphia, where Jin was once a regular himself, at a place called Geno's Steaks.
"Used to I go there three nights a week. Ride my bicycle with my friend."
So Jin Lin knows what it means to be a regular. He's been here at Sushi Time for nearly a decade, and he says he loves his regulars.
"They so lovely. They support us. They love us. They treat us like a family member."
As we talk, Jin Lin brings David a bowl of soup.
"I didn't even see you order that. Did he just bring that to you?" I ask.
"I just went like this--" and here David cups his hands as if he's holding a bowl of soup. "He said okay and he puts pepper in it because he knows I like pepper. White pepper."
"But that's not the only soup on the menu. He knew which kind you wanted," I say.
David nods. "Because I don't get anything else. I like the wonton soup. I'm not getting egg drop or sweet and sour. He knows exactly what I want. He'll tell you exactly what sushi Beth likes."
Jin says he remembers about fifty of his customer's names and preferences. He's got a good memory. And he's a good listener.
"You sit there and listen to, you know. I told you my story. And you feel, okay, he's on my side. Scott, how you doing?"
Scott Simmers walks into Sushi Time. He's 52, lives in Haverhill, Massachusetts, and he's wearing a bathing suit. Before another word is spoken, Jin puts a tall silver can of Sapporo in front of him. Simmers says he comes to Sushi Time twice a week. He says he likes talking to Jin, who looks out for him, since he can't have nuts and eggs.
"He knows that and he saved me one time," Simmers says. "Something got served with eggs and he noticed it and didn't even give it to me. Brought it right back."
"Every time, I have a special made for Scott," Jin says. "I know he can't have it. He was born that way. I don't want because that he can't try beautiful meal."
To be a regular, it seems, is to be seen. To have someone say: hey, I know you. I'm glad to see you. To be a regular is to have someone like Jin Lin run interference when a food that might kill you graces your plate. It means having someone who's on your side.
Jin says it all comes down to this: "Love. And then, of course, restaurant, you need to provide yummy food, good service. And good Mai Tai, don't forget. Good Mai Tai."