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Great Expectations

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Cindy Couling

Dining out is an eternal social ritual that quickens our hopes for a memorable experience and undeniably a whole lot more

By Christina Waters

REMEMBER THE FIRST TIME you went out for dinner? It was probably with your parents, someplace where you dressed up and somebody else did all the ordering. Restaurants in secular society have a lot in common with religious training centers. Here the emerging member of the community is taught to perform socially correct actions in public, i.e., etiquette. Customs involving silverware, glasses, napkins and polite talk with adults are learned and practiced. The ritual nature of restaurant dining helps to explain the relief, the downright abandon we experience when we go to carry-out or fast-food places. Here all those social rules of interaction are thrown away and we can indulge in the relatively lawless behavior of eating with our hands, talking with our mouths full and pouring ketchup on our french fries.

But the Restaurant Experience--mine was at a venerable old seafood establishment on the Potomac River called the Flagship--helps introduce many of us to a world of transformational ritual and romance.

Looking our best, we dine by candlelight and discover the ecstasy of intricate desserts. Here we can gaze into the eyes of another person, separated by the brief but symbolically critical distance of a tabletop as we try on ideas and emotions, sort of test-driving the future before we take it out for a serious spin.

At the Flagship, so many years ago, I learned that you had to take turns ordering. I learned the joys of being presented with some new mysterious food that looked utterly unlike anything my mother ever served. There were pithy lessons in fulfilling one's end of a contract--you ordered it, you eat it. The sweet fulfillment of dessert, as the reward attainable for eating all your vegetables, took on the archetypal significance of finding the Holy Grail because you'd led an exemplary life. Here I observed my parents at their most playful, as they laughed over the menu and teased each other about their choices. My sister and I explored the wonders of food play, food silliness and, when the parents weren't looking, low-key food fighting. I learned that lobster was a luxury food, highly desirable, not only because it was the most expensive item on the menu, but because it was delicious beyond words.

Dining at the Flagship with my parents on Sunday afternoons became a highly anticipated outing, a few hours liberated from the mundane messiness of our real world and our real dining room table in which we could--godlike--order what we pleased (as long as it wasn't too expensive). Indulging our overactive fantasies, we dreamt of the grown-up experiences to come.

What's interesting is that those early restaurant experiences contained in miniature most of the pleasures, practices and pitfalls of dining out in the adult world. If you were lucky enough, as I was, to have had some positive early restaurant experiences, you probably find yourself hoping to recapture some of their magic every time you dine out today.

THERE ARE MYRIAD HOPES and dreams involved in this business of dining out. "That's easy," many women with whom I've discussed the question responded, "I look forward to dining out so that I don't have to cook." That response was followed closely by "And because there aren't any dishes to do." In other words, the primary cook and food provider in the household looks forward to dining out as release from duty. Many men chimed in, "So that my wife has a night off from cooking." In other words, dining out is seen as a break from chores, a break from routine too, and as a treat for a loved one who would otherwise be performing those chores.

In the dream department, many of us look forward to dining out as a prelude to romance, or as a substitute for romance. Think about first dates--the traditional dinner and a movie. In the relative safety of a public but intimate setting, two people can get to know each other gradually. The menu and food give them something to talk about, just in case it turns out they really have nothing in common. Under this heading also comes dining out as a substitute for long-gone romance or as an effort to jump-start a waning love.

Our culture instructs men--and feeds to women a parallel expectation--that wining and dining are ways to show love. Restaurateurs the country over will admit that special-occasion dining makes up a huge portion of their business. Valentine's Day leads the pack, followed by Mother's Day, prom night, anniversaries and birthdays. It's a can't-fail solution. (Many go so far as to think that one lavish night of gastronomic display can make up for a year's worth of uneven attention.)

Those being wooed or celebrated are allowed to choose anything they like to eat and drink. Special treats, normally forbidden, are completely allowed. Toasts may be raised to the honored individual, and the bill is taken care of by someone else.

It's a way of making a fuss over someone without actually doing a whole lot yourself. In fact, many of us see restaurants as extensions of our own largesse. Even though I am not making you dinner with my own hands--arguably a much more substantive display of devotion--I am going to the trouble of reserving a table at your favorite restaurant and paying for a dinner I'm betting you'll enjoy.

ON THE FLIP SIDE of all these dining-out hopes and dreams are the realities. If she didn't like you before dinner, she probably won't like you after dinner. But she might be grateful enough to, well, you know--be grateful. If he wasn't handsome before the appetizers, maybe he will be after the champagne. But the next morning, he's still got funny ears and dirty fingernails.

Perhaps the biggest difference between dining out as an adult and those treasured childhood dining experiences is that now you, not daddy, are paying the bill. And that leads us to our final great dining expectation. That you get what you pay for.

When we go out to eat we're hoping for emotional ephemera, but something substantial to boot. We're hoping to dine well for a fair price. In the bargain we see dining out as a way of expanding our own sensory repertoire--part of the adventure is having a dish we cannot, or will not, make at home. Or of sampling some cuisine we've never tried before. Restaurant dining, at its best, takes us not only into an extraordinary, ritual space, but it can provide flavor, texture and aroma enchantment as well.

All in all, I'd call that a lot of bang for the buck.

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From the July 8-14, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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