Dining Out

In which you do not cook, and courtship continues.



Out to eat. What flawless pleasure. Someone else cooks, someone else cleans up, and you don’t even have to say thank you much less offer to help. Just pay the check and head out into the anonymous night. If the food is no good you don’t have to feign having enjoyed yourself. “The eggplant was soggy, and the salad awfully salty,” you can cheerfully inform the waiter without remorse, removed from compassionate responsibility by the maze of walls between your table and the second-rate chefs in the kitchen. Spill red wine on the tablecloth. Drop your silverware on the floor and don’t retrieve it. Pick all the mushrooms out of your salad and feed them to your companion. Order coffee and don’t drink it. Not that you should do any of these things. But you absolutely should not do them anywhere but in a restaurant.1

Still, you first need to decide where to eat and with whom. An art practiced by few. Most eat with the people they are used to eating with, whether they enjoy them or not, and they frequent restaurants they are used to, or more unfortunately restaurants sanctioned by popular culture, which are too reliably either the worst places2 or the among the most expensive ones. Fear of food. So many people will explain gently and reasonably that the best, even the only rational thing to do, is to eat at McDonald’s. You know what you are getting—at least you know what it will taste like—and you can sue an enormous and wealthy corporation if you ever happen to get sick from their food. Can’t say that about the inventive Egyptian falafel place out on 28th Street. Unfortunately, nothing that can be recognized as courtship can take place in a fast food restaurant. The tone and pace are all wrong. Materials are chosen for practical reasons and do not encourage fingers to imagine what they might touch next. You would have to already be in love, or so young your hormones are louder than the molded plastic, to escape with interest and imagination intact. Never mind provoking anything new. Independent and obscure spots may be just as inconsiderate of the senses, but at least they are new to you and there can be an element of discovery, even if you only discover how awful the place is. You never have to go back.

When choosing a specific place to eat, you will probably have an idea of the sort of place you are seeking. In France the various genres are clearly labeled and there are strict guidelines as to what can take place in each of them. You can choose from the main menu of Cafés, Tea Salons, Brasseries, Restaurants, Wine Bars, Pizzarias, and all of the non-French places which are like normal restaurants to the rest of the western world. And fast-food, of course. The official classification of a place will largely determine the attitude of the meal. Cafés are non-committal and casual, open to the street or park, generally serve wine, beer and some other stuff along with the coffee drinks, and you can always get a toasted ham and cheese sandwich which will always be called a Croque-something or other. Tea houses are quieter than cafés, less open to the street, and serve more desserts than savories. They too serve coffee. Brasseries are loud, bright and fast-moving, waiters have even less time for you than in other sorts of places, and you can order whatever you want or nothing at all. Restaurants are leisurely even when loud, courses are followed, and you are committed to having a whole meal, even at lunch. There is some overlap between these places. For example, for lunch one day you might choose between one of the more casual and affordable restaurants and a cafe that happens to have a particularly complete menu.

But you probably aren’t in France.3 In the USA, dining establishments have similarly different characters but are not so clearly labeled. Once you branch away from the Cafes, Family Style, and Smorgasbord places, which you should certainly do, discovering which is which can be more difficult than in a more regimented culture, and it is easy to find yourself unfortunately seated at exactly the wrong sort of place. Something that looked like a cafe can reveal itself to be a high-end restaurant only when you open the menu, and vice versa. When that happens, you can either enjoy the sudden change of plans and laugh about it later; or you can admit to your companion or companions it is not the sort of place you had expected and see if any of them are also unhappy about it. They may all be fine, or they may be thrilled someone was so bold as to say something and you can, after apologizing for the misunderstanding to the waiter, make your sortie en masse and adjourn to a more appropriate spot. A clumsy moment the entire price of a delightful evening.

It is maybe a better strategy to get proficient at discerning the character of a place before you ask for a table. Look at the menu. In fact, look at menus all over town. Drop by restaurants when you walk or drive by and have a minute to spare, especially around meal times. Walk in and see what the interior feels like, the atmosphere created by the clientele. Ask to see menus for lunch and for dinner. Make an especial effort to do this if you are contemplating asking someone to join you for a meal at a certain spot and you have never been there before. If you choose to depend on the opinions and experience of others, don’t neglect to factor in the sorts of things they tend to like and not like and adjust accordingly for your own tastes.4 If you are calling for reservations at a place you do not know much about, ask what sorts of things are on the menu and what their prices are. Listen to determine if it sounds like a loud or muted place. Ask how one should dress. All these answers will give you good clues as to the atmosphere of the place. Tell them what you are looking for, be it a place for conversation, for celebration or for inebriation, and inquire as to whether their restaurant will be a good choice for the occasion. They should be honest. Restaurants don’t want unhappy people moping about any more than you want to be in the wrong place.

You are still left with the burden of decision. So what if you are familiar with every restaurant and cafe in your town and have eaten at all of them many times. You still have to think about what is right for today, for the people you will be dining with, and make a good decision. More than that. When someone else makes a decision you know to be a poor one, you have the unenviable opportunity to say something early on and avoid an awkward situation later. Imagine, your good friend’s parents are in town and their child has invited you to join them for dinner at a restaurant which you know to be loud and filled with professional people performing that ugly mating dance of the Homo Sapiens Sapiens. Your friend has heard from other friends it is a great place, but has neglected to notice that the people who recommend it consistently favor the boisterous and bawdy over the discreet and delightful. If you go passively along you can expect an infernal evening of shouting into his father’s hearing aid and hoping none of your acquaintances from last weekend come over and say hello. This would be a good time to think hard and come up with exactly the right place where everyone can enjoy the meal and visit. You must present your suggestion diplomatically, which is never easy but it will be worth the effort.5

Think about your dining companions and what they like. Not just what they say they like and think they like, but what you know they like from being with them and watching them and knowing things about them they don’t even like to admit about themselves, which you probably know about everyone you have ever met even for twenty minutes four years ago at a garage sale. Think about what sort of atmosphere will be appropriate. It will be different today than it would be tomorrow, which makes it very difficult to plan where to eat next week. Festive and celebratory, quiet and protecting, airy and bright or airy and dark. Stuffy is almost never the right atmosphere but sometimes it is. There are restaurants which design their atmosphere to preclude conversation and so are very popular with people who don’t have anything to say to each other. There are other places where if you are not engaged in conversation you will be compelled to listen to that of another table. Consider whether you want to spend a good deal of money, or very little, or if you do not care and know your companions don’t care either. Is it a beautiful evening and do you want to eat outdoors? Is it important to you or to another that the food be very good, or could the quality of the meal be compromised in favor of the perfect setting? Was anyone formerly married to the chef or currently dating one of the waiters? Is it a long way from home? Does anyone have food allergies or preferences which must be considered? Delicate stomachs? Is the smoking or non-smoking section more desirable, and is that the section you will be choosing? How is the wine list and does anyone care? Likewise, is there a full bar and does anyone care? How close are the tables and how comfortable are the chairs, and does anyone care? Obviously you must consider handicap access in some cases. And the hours and days of service. Certainly there are myriad elements to think about, and you can’t possibly remember them all. Habit will form as you discover how a moment of thoughtfulness can make a meal at least twice as likely to be a lovely one.

As you get good at choosing a place to dine, you will feel more comfortable disagreeing with someone’s initial suggestion. Take care. Just because you are good at something doesn’t mean you get to do it all the time. Sometimes there is a very good reason a friend or associate or beloved wants to go somewhere that seems wrong. You can steamroller someone’s hopes and plans for the meal without even noticing, perhaps thereby steamrollering some of your own bigger plans. Remembering you are probably dining with that person because you like them and like to spend time with them and are maybe even hoping to have the opportunity to spend more time with them, don’t do that. Try to discreetly ascertain why any establishment has been suggested. “Is there some particular reason you want to go there?” asked in a sincere and not snide manner will usually do the trick. Offer in an authentically deferential fashion any suggestion you might have and your reason for thinking it might be a better choice. If your suggestion is not taken up, don’t worry about it. The point is to spend time with people and to enjoy them, not to get your way all the time. You can do that quite easily by dining alone.

Take care in choosing where to dine for the additional, very good reason that it is easier to behave well and attractively in places which suit you, or at least aren’t in violent or awkward opposition to your character. Still, wherever you are and however difficult it might be, good behavior is a good choice.



Restaurant Comportment


All Table Manners apply, except the part about helping clear the table. Plus:

Be respectful of the people working in the restaurant and of the space and of other diners.6

Make reservations, and cancel them even at the very last minute if you change your plans. If for some odd reason the restaurant asks why you have changed your plans, say you don’t know exactly why, but that you thought they would like to know. For the most part though they will simply thank you.

Put your napkin on your lap immediately upon sitting down. Unless for some reason it would be disruptive, as when the silverware is wrapped up in the cloth of the napkin and unfolding the package would make a badly timed racket. In that case, wait until your companion has finished their thought, and then make minimal clatter as you remove the utensils and place your napkin on your lap where it belongs.

If you don’t care at all what you have for dinner, consider asking your companion if there is a second choice they wanted to try on the menu, and order that.

If you are the host of the evening, or in many cases if you are a man,7 make sure the rest of your party is seated comfortably before taking your own seat. Partly a gesture of consideration, and partly a strategy to avoid looking like a self-serving nincompoop when you have to rise again to help sort out some difficulty or confusion. As they say in the navy: “I got mine. How y’all doin'?”

Sit properly at the table. Which is to say in your chair and facing the table and the others at the table to the degree your legs fit under the table. Which is to say, not perched as though ready at a moment’s notice to run off to something more interesting.

You might order for your companion if they have told you what they want.8 Especially if their mouth is full of bread when the waiter asks them for their order. Ask if you may and then be sure you get it right.9 Be as though a translator. “He’s having the eggplant masala,” you tell the waiter then adding, “You know, I think I’ll have the same thing.” Don’t try this for more than one other person.

If you drop something on the floor, don’t pick it up. Ask for a new one. Or if you pick it up before thinking, put it to the side and still ask for a new one. Even if you don’t really care, there is a good chance someone at your table will be profoundly disturbed by your continuing to use a utensil which has fallen to the floor. Old, ingrained repulsion that will be difficult for them to shake on such short notice and you shouldn’t expect them to. If you drop food or drink on the floor that would be well-served by immediate attention, let your waiter know.

Do not complain about the restaurant, the atmosphere, or in any way suggest you would rather be somewhere else.

Don’t chew with your mouth open. Not here and not anywhere else. You would be surprised how many people cannot stand this particular habit, and how very few would ever say anything to anyone about it.10

Don’t make noise while you are eating. If you seem to be unable to eat in relative silence, you should probably consult a dentist or one of the many variations of mouth experts available to you. There is probably a problem which could be destroying your teeth or jawbone in addition to destroying the humor of your dining companions.

Don’t eat off another’s plate without first asking if you may and if they mind. From their response, which will invariably be positive, you can gather whether they are comfortable with sharing (“Of course, help yourself!”), or whether they would prefer you didn’t (“Uh... sure...”), and then behave accordingly. Always ask in such a way that it is easy for the other to say no. Always being prepared for the “Yes” which really means “I’d prefer not.”

Suggest that your companion taste your meal, especially if it is delicious. Many people think asking to try food on another’s plate is completely impolite and just won’t do it. I prefer to think if one is embarking upon or ensconced in any sort of friendship with anyone, it should always be appropriate to ask sincerely and respectfully for what one sincerely and respectfully wants. But everyone doesn’t agree and even those who do are sometimes trapped in rusty restrictions. Be kind and generous and patient, and if you accidentally gobble up your meal without offering a taste, apologize.

If there are people in the restaurant you know and to whom you want to say hello, do so but briefly. A five minute visit either at your table or at theirs is more than enough. If someone you know has not read this page in this book and is lingering too long table side, excuse yourself to make a phone call or some such thing saying, “It was nice seeing you. See you soon,” as you leave your own table. You can explain your odd behavior later to your accommodating companion. If the visitor is still there when you return and you wish to be rid of them, simply excuse yourself and your companion, saying you have some private things to discuss. Be sure your companion feels the same way or you risk offending them deeply by appearing possessive and controlling. It is hard to know, but they will probably give you some clues, like insisting your conversation can wait or actually inviting the visitor to join your table.

Invite others to join you at your table only if you are sure your companion is happy about it. Unless, of course, you don’t care if your companion is happy about it. Or if you think they are wrong to be unhappy about it and you are trying to make a point. But in that case we may not be talking about courtship.

Dress appropriately to the occasion. Do not embarrass or concern your companion by being either vastly over or underdressed. There is an enormous landscape of possibilities which are appropriate for everything from midmorning coffee to formal dinners so there is no good reason to be caught with the wrong pants on. On the same note, be clean and smell clean. People have to eat near you, and in many cases you want at least one person to consider getting even nearer to you after the meal. Bathe with soap.

Take the least good seat at the table. If there is a view, give it to another. If one chair appears more sturdy and comfortable than the rest, offer it to another and by whatever means don’t take it. If you are the guest of others in their town and the view is really for your benefit, reverse the above admonition. Also, if another is attempting to court you by taking the seat which is less good, allow that rather than getting into a tussle. Accept and submit to courtship. It is not binding.

Remember how your favorites like their coffee or tea or water or wine and if it is served wrong, notice and correct it before they do.11 The best sorts of people hate complaining on their own account, and anyone at all is enchanted by someone noticing and caring about their comfort.

Never never never get up to leave without asking the others if they are ready to go and getting a unanimously positive response.

Never argue with the waiter about the check at the table. If there is a problem with the check, tell the waiter. If the waiter cannot or does not take care of it, or if there is a dispute, excuse yourself and take care of it at the cash register or at the host stand, or on the sidewalk for all I care. Confrontations are terrible for digestion and the possibility that your handling of it will prove impressive is very very slim. It can destroy what might have been a very nice mood, ruining in turn your hopes for a very nice evening.

Don’t get drunk.

Don’t do drugs in the restroom, or at the table for that matter.

Don’t flirt in a suggestive manner with restaurant staff nor with other diners.

If your food is bad or badly cooked or if you did not get what you ordered, address the problem immediately and courteously with your waiter. Do not wait or whine or pout or martyr yourself to the meal. What would be the point? Your companion will feel terrible, neither of you will enjoy the evening, and it would have been effortless to resolve had you done so right away. If you can’t bring yourself to do anything and your companion offers to, accept. Throw your ego and your fears out and let them resolve that which is immaterial to them. It is a wonderful playground for practicing diplomacy. It’s just a restaurant. It might be entertaining for them or something they are good at, and certainly it is always smart to let someone do you a favor. You get to return it later.

In reverse, if there is anything bothering your companion, ignore their protestations that they don’t mind and take care of it. Things like the sun in their eyes, or air conditioning blowing on them, or a chair which wobbles, or a utensil that is not clean, or food that is not cooked properly are the sorts of things one is apt not to want to make a scene over. Certainly, the sort of people you want to be hanging around with won’t want to make a scene over something which only bothers them and not that much. That is why you must leap in softly and make the point that even when they would put themselves second, you put them first. The very essence of courtship, I would venture, each putting the other first in a constant expression of regard and affection. Beautiful to watch. Astounding to find oneself within.

Speak, for the most part, in a reasonable tone of voice and at a reasonable volume. Others are trying to eat and have conversations of their own. And it is possible your dining companion is among those people who are phobic about feeling conspicuous in public places. You will not change that, and certainly not by being loud.

Let the restaurant management know if there was any problem with the service or with anything else. Waiters are not paid to snitch on themselves, and management needs to know how things are going. Imagine it were your establishment. What would you like customers to do if they had a bad experience? You would want them to be gracious about it at the time, and then let you know what happened as soon as possible. Your companion will be impressed by your sense of responsibility combined with restraint and good nature.12

Don’t break into song.13

Try not to be extraordinarily special in your ordering. Or if you are, be just as good-natured and flexible as you are persnickety.

Don’t ask for separate checks except in the most rare of circumstances.14

Refrain from criticizing your companion’s choice of food. Make your recommendations, and be done with it. If they want to order something you know is not particularly good at this spot, tell them in a non-judgmental fashion, including why you didn’t like it. It might be exactly the sort of thing they love.

Check your teeth, and mustache as well if you have one, for bits of food. Your knife will work as a mirror for this, according to some. Better I think to make a visit to the restroom after the meal, or if you are on very friendly and intimate terms with your companion, ask for a tooth check.15

Order sensibly and with awareness of yourself and what you like and what is good for you. When unsure, I will ask the waiter what they really like and then pick from among those choices. This is not fool proof. They may be trying to unload an awful special of some sort and you might fall for it. Another trick is to notice what is being served at other tables and if something appeals to you, ask for it. Some people order very badly, always ending up with something they don’t like. Maybe they don’t read the menu carefully. Maybe they aren’t honest with themselves about what they like to eat. Maybe they harbor delusions about the world and food within it. I can’t figure them out. If you are one of those people, work it out. Find a way to order properly. People hate it when their meal is great and they want to eat all of it, but they have to share because you ordered stupidly. And that’s if they are nice. They might just as likely leave you hungry, but enjoy their meal less for watching you pick around your plate.





Mind you, there are a whole slew of things I am not thinking of right off, but which your mother would be glad to outline for you.










FOOTNOTES


1 There are a few things you should remember when choosing how to behave in a restaurant mentioned somewhere near the end of this chapter.

2 By whose standard? you ask. Mine, naturally. It seems the United States has poisoned the earth with the idea and the reality of fast food. So much meat to begin with, which is a political problem on every scale, from global reduction of old forests and indigenous economies to the very personal tragedies of heart disease and colon cancer, back to the national burden of poor health and the complete destruction of whatever cultural ethics and aesthetics we might have once possessed, gifts from our ancestors in every part of the world. Fast food is incompatible with respect for food and for the land and the creatures that feed us. We all suffer from this carelessness, except maybe for the owners of the fast food chains. They too will eventually find there are no more beautiful things to spend their money on, no more food worth eating, no more tranquil places to relax. Then perhaps they will be sorry.

3 I can tell because if you were you wouldn't be reading this book. You would be lingering in cafes and on bridges and in museums, holding hands and sharing kisses and glasses of warm and cool things. You would be watching carefully the manner in which French people prepare and serve food and learn ever so much more about food and courtship than you ever could with your nose in this book.

4 You know how to do that, right? It is an elaboration of critical thinking, listening to and interpreting criticism for yourself.

5 It will also be worth the effort to hold your tongue if you don't want to go to the restaurant because you don't like it but it is a perfectly fine choice in every other way.

6 If you are unsure what "respectful" means, ask five friends and listen carefully to their answers. Then read several essays by such philosophers as John Stuart Mill or Ralph Waldo Emerson. Then read Dear Abby or Ann Landers for one week straight. Then think hard about what it might mean to act with dignity and to treat others and yourself with respect. Look up all these words in several dictionaries. Figure out who it is you admire most in the world that you also have access to, and ask them to talk to you about what respect means to different people in different situations. From all this derive your own sense of what it might mean to treat others and yourself with respect, and then do.

7 I know someday I'm going to have to discuss this man/woman thing, and I'm not looking forward to it any more than you are. For now, forgive me for acknowledging that many people continue to nurture expectations based upon gender.

8 If you are a man and your companion is a woman, these waters are choppy from old storms that have yet to pass completely into calm. Sorry. Tread softly.

9 Check as well to see if you are irritating them terribly by ordering for them.

10 Behind backs, of course, but that is worse. I mention this in the context of restaurants because things people are willing to forgive in private, they are sometimes mortified by in public. Not that many people would warmly tolerate this offense in private either. At a restaurant they can be further mortified that the public might think they put up with it in private. That is when a lover turns viperous and you can't figure out why and they won't tell you because they are paralyzed by their own inability to deal with the subject. What webs we weave and trap only ourselves. Best to ask a frank and unimpeachable friend whether you are guilty of this before it becomes important. Or you can embark on a little self-observation.

11 Yes, I'm completely serious.

12 As opposed to what they might think if you chew out the waiter for some small error, or if you let some horrible mishap slide because you don't want to make a fuss.

13 Unless it is one of those really rowdy establishments which encourages that sort of thing, and you know a really good song. Or if it someone’s birthday and they will not expire from embarrassment if you sing to them in public, Personally, I like to sing a quiet Happy Birthday in an archaic form of double talk to the birthday person, just to them and whoever is right next to them at a moment when they seem unoccupied with other birthday worries. In a restaurant, very softly, an odd musical whisper near their ear. A private gift which excuses me from attempting to sing along later. It is the only party trick I know. Six year olds love it.

14 I cannot even imagine what those might be. Sometimes you will be dining with someone who will not be happy in any other circumstance, and then you should ask politely for a separate check for them.

15 A disgusting detail that would be nice to ignore, but the very ugly truth is no one will hear a word you say as long as there is food on your face. A good clue that something is amiss is if your companion seems to be trying to get something non-existent off their own face or teeth. On the other hand, warm, good-natured grooming assistance from your companion might be a strong sign courtship is proceeding apace.

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