So, we went to DC and went out for dinner. A serious, big, splurgy, my sister's 30th birthday dinner where we made up for belatedness with an extra shot of awesome. We did the tasting menu, wine pairings, and had a great time. Of the four of us, one was new to the whole idea of dining at that level so we tried to give him an idea of what to expect. No big rules and regulations, just suggestions on how to get the most out of things. I'm pretty sure it worked, he had a great time (as we all did) and I think the chef only spotted him licking his plate once or twice.
It occured to me as we were throwing a few simple ideas his way that people don't think about going out to eat as an event anymore. Maybe it went the way of men wearing hats all the time and ladies' gloves. That's a shame, too, because the way to get the most out of a meal that someone else is cooking is to look at it for the splurge it is... not just something from the drive through. And when one is trying to economize, if you can make even the smallest indulgence feel more decadent, it will satiate you longer. So these are a few of the things we covered at dinner on how to really go out to eat:
1. Choose the dinner companions that are best for the situation. Seriously, a tasting menu with a bad companion is an exercise in contemplating infinity. Someone with serious germphobia might ruin your fun tracking down a local taco truck. A good hint, enthusiasm for the idea. Don't forget to be a good dining buddy yourself. If you have to, work out piddly details like who will cover what part of the check beforehand so you can just relax and enjoy your occasion.
2. Have a plan. This actually came up after our fancy dinner. My sweetheart suggested that having a budget in mind and that sort of thinking was too much work for a simple meal. I countered that if you have something in mind, you are more likely to find the best possible options. It is not a bad thing to say in advance, "We can spend 30 dollars tonight, and I'm just not feeling Chinese food but I would kill for nacho tots." It will help control the "I don't know, what do you want to do?" endless loop of bad feelings.
3. Go to the best place possible in your budget. This should be a given, but if chili's hasn't gone completely bankrupt by now, then it needs to be restated. Hell, if you only have $20 that will get you good pho for two in most cities. Live in the middle of nowhere? Maybe you've got some guy in the next town that makes killer catfish or a great burger. Explore your options, and if that doesn't work, stay home and save the money. There are worse things than not going out to eat.
4. Trust in the person cooking. If you followed suggestion #2, this will be much more rewarding. Not every dish needs to be fussed with before eating and sometimes you may enjoy something you would not normally like. Those moments are worth more than the monotony of every good hot dog you've ever had. I had a very wonderful, memorable meal in which the chef hit every single ick nerve of everyone at the table, but we tried everything anyway and loved it.
5. Attitude is everything. The internet is filled with people who take going out to eat too damn seriously. If you go into each meal with a mind ready only to critique, not to enjoy, then I don't want to eat with you. Remember, the dish that saved Anton Ego was a variation on a peasant dish, one that he sneered at for its baseness when it was presented to him. Be willing to be surprised by the simple things. I'm not saying don't pay attention to what you're eating, I'm saying don't clinically dissect every second of it.
6. Savor it. Relax a little. Laugh. Look around. Talk. Ignore your cell phone. Ask your server how she is doing tonight. Don't sweat the money you're spending because that is a decision you already made. Yes, this all goes back to #5 but it bears repeating.
We won't be going out to eat for a while, and I know that will have been our big meal for the year (although there's another 30th birthday next year, so who knows what that will bring). But I have lots of snapshots in my head. I have flavors and smells and can revisit that amazing scallop or the goat or that rhubarb sorbet and the occasion was special. That is why we spend the money, take the time, make the effort, why we go out to eat in the first place. I may be crazy for having put as much as I did into one meal, but bottom line?
Totally worth it.