I never thought I’d question the unassuming act of eating out. Forgoing a home cooked meal and heading to a wonderfully smelling place that seemed to have never-ending options of culinary delights has always seem like an adventure to me. Now, dare I say, it has become an annoying imposition.
What pushed me to this place of discontent is not the food, but the entire experience of going out to eat. While chain restaurants offer reasonably priced, somewhat delicious food, the ambiance and patronage have given way to an endless circus of self-entertainment and guest surveys. Gone are the days of the quiet, intimate dining experience. Instead loud music and constant interruptions of “how is everything” dominate this once enjoyable event.
I didn’t realize how bad things had gotten until I spent twelve jam packed days making my way through Europe. On my 33rd birthday I walked into a Paris café to enjoy some charming French cuisine with my travelling companion. We were quietly seated and, despite an obvious barrier on the language front, were able to navigate the menu without too much confusion. The friend who I was traveling with had, at the time, been in Europe for the better part of five months. She was accustomed to the expectations of dining European style and quickly educated me on the etiquette surrounding the dining out experience. Firstly, loud talking was completely and totally frowned upon. Dining was considered an intimate affair and one to be thoroughly enjoyed with all the senses. The food, as it turns out, is considered almost secondary. When our waiter took forever to come back to our table I quickly expressed my dismay. She explained that within the rudiments of the eating experience it was considered ghastly and rude to interrupt diners during their meal. Waiters and waitresses would only come to the table if they were called upon by the diners themselves – otherwise, they kept their distance. I immediately warmed up to this ideology – as eating out back home had seemingly become filled with endless interruptions.
Another “ah ha” moment was when the concept of no cell phones on the table was pointed out to me. This was something I consciously looked for throughout the duration of my trip. Indeed, not once did I see a diner turn away from their eating partners to check their phone. Nor did I ever see a cell phone make an appearance. I have vivid recollections of eating at a restaurant only a few short months ago and, upon glancing to my immediate left, discovered a row of booths where everyone’s face was beautifully lit by the cell phone clutched in their hands. Throughout my meal I would periodically watch one couple stare at their phones, only to look up and speak to each other when referencing a Facebook post or text message. (I should also note that I was completely horrified one time to walk into a restaurant only to find mini-flat screen TV’s perched on the side of each booth – a fixture which is sadly becoming the norm in most family oriented dining establishments). It was in those moments that I silently applauded myself for keeping my phone buried deep within the bowels of my over-sized handbag.
It was, however, a dining experience that I had most recently that finally pushed me to the edge of tolerance. While enjoying a perfectly lovely meal of way too much pasta and cheese, our table was constantly bombarded by choruses of “how’s the food”, “is everything okay”, and “can I get anyone anything” from streams of restaurant personnel. The straw that finally broke the camel’s back was when, while pleasantly chatting with those at the table, the waitress, during my mid-sentence breath, asked if I wanted my food wrapped up to go. Looking down at my plate and then back at her the only thing I could think of was to respond with, “but I was just talking”. The feeling that came over me was, being the slow eater that I am, that I was not a welcomed sight in this particular eating establishment. A wonderfully pleasant afternoon became tainted because I was not a hurried eater. I had clearly made the wrong choice – the exchange of pleasantries over the wolfing down of my food. Utter disappointment and dismay immediately overcame me. My food became less of a delight and more of a chore. “Better eat and get out” was my only thought. So much for good food and satisfying conversation.
It saddens me that restaurant dining, especially in chain restaurants, has become more of a business and less of an experience. Taking in nourishment is a biological requirement that Mother Nature has imprinted upon us, however, the social construct around such an activity is what transforms us into shared, story creating beings. Eating out has become a lost art as a way to enjoy time with friends and family.
As for me, I’ve decided that for the foreseeable future I will be doing most of my dining around my own kitchen table, where the only interruption is likely to be the flashy puppy dog eyes of my overly dramatic, never starved dog.