rumination 15: why restaurants matter…

There are eight million ways I could start this post.

I could begin by scrutinizing the moral imperative surrounding high-end dining, while trying to dodge all of its guilt-laden side effects and seemingly unjustifiable excesses.  Let them eat brioche, as it were.

Or, I could initiate a circuitous dialogue about the artistic value of cooking in the modern age.  Edible Picassos, and all that jazz.

But I wouldn’t be able to make a compelling argument either way.

So instead, I’m going to simply tell you a true story, one that was told to me by a good friend over brunch last weekend.

We hadn’t seen each other in ten years.   In fact, the last time I saw her, she was Homecoming queen and I was her attendant.

In the intervening decade, she had married and had two children.  They’re very cute.

Our brunch rolled on with talk of this and talk of that.  We asked each other about classmates we hadn’t seen in years, laughed about our silly adolescent antics, and sighed about the effects of aging. We talked about her career as a stay-at-home mom, and my career as a mysterious eater.  Pausing a moment on the subject of restaurants, she turned to her husband, and then to me.  She had something to share.

Following the birth of her first child, she went into a deep, postpartum depression. A feeling of hopelessness and low self-esteem overtook her. She couldn’t shake it.

Moved by her anguish, her husband’s boss sent them off to Chicago for dinner – a night on the town, just the two of them.

The identity of the restaurant where they ate is inconsequential in so far as it could have been any restaurant. But it does matter in so far as it’s a restaurant that consistently distinguishes itself for being able to create special experiences like the one my friend and her husband had that night.  I know it’s true because I’ve eaten there.

All dressed up, they arrived at Charlie Trotter’s.  Over the succeeding hours, my friend said that she and her husband were so warmly welcomed and served that she reawakened to the fact that she was a person with an identity and a person who deserved to enjoy life.  Charlie Trotter’s made her feel special.

Though that dinner was not an overnight cure, she cited it as the turning point in her depression.  From there, she started to recover.

Why do restaurants matter?

They give us delicious things to eat, surely.  They give us pretty things to look at, certainly.  And they keep the hive of food nerds buzzing and obsessing – why else are you able to read this blog?

But a restaurant experience goes beyond the plate. Restaurants can give us hope.  At the end of a long day, week, month, or postnatal struggle, dinner out can be the light at the end of the tunnel,  a reward, a temporary hideaway from the daily drill.

Restaurants coddle us, they comfort us.  They make us feel special.  They make life better.  This is not superficial, this is not small.

My friend’s story might be just another cheesy anecdote, or it could be one person’s triumph – one of many such stories. Her answer could have arrived at a concert, in a phone conversation, or through a hug.  But for my friend, it was dinner at Charlie Trotter’s.  And to her, restaurants now matter much more than they did before.

~ by ulterior epicure on November 2, 2010.

8 Responses to “rumination 15: why restaurants matter…”

  1. Excellent post and I could similarly cite an experience regarding my own life – alluded to in my comments on Gramercy Tavern a mere 3 years ago. One of my favorite food related quotes is from Ferran Adria – “It’s not easy to create things that will bring pleasure. But if we can do that, then, yes, it’s enough.”

    I think that sums it up nicely.

  2. Restaurants provide a place where pleasure, friendship, companionship and a sense of shared humanity may be experienced, as often as desired. For me, restaurants are like jazz; it is hard to imagine life without them.

  3. restaurants are important to me–I work in them. but they are also important because they seem to be the one place where I always have the best conversations with my wife–and they’re usually not mostly about food. weird? I guess that’s why restaurants (outside of work) matter to me.

  4. Restaurants exist to serve people, not food.

  5. Great article, make me rethink why I enjoy people watching at restaurants so much.

  6. I passed this along to a friend who commented: “Interesting, but I have the opposite reaction. Its more like I don’t matter. I have to pay, a lot, to matter. Its not me. Its my checkbook.”

  7. “Restaurants coddle us, they comfort us. They make us feel special. They make life better. This is not superficial, this is not small.”

    I would make one change in that paragraph. It needs to have the word SHOULD. Too many restaurants/chefs think the purpose of their restaurant is to show off. As someone with a special dietary need (celiac disease), I have nearly given up dining at any but a handful of tested restaurants because of a general inability of most places to understand and accommodate my food limitations. They all seem to have the attitude that I am being “bothersome” to ask about ingredients or request that a particular item (croutons, for example) be left out of a dish. For those chefs who truly believe their talent is to create that memorable dining experience, using their skills and imaginations, I say Bravo! I will support you with my presence and my pocketbook. Top the rest (are you listening, Anthony Bourdain??), I say Bah, humbug! May your restaurants sit empty and your food grow cold waiting for customers…

  8. Great post. It is so much more than the food. It is the ability a restaurant has to create a particular “experience”. I will return again and again to those places that provide me the “Feeling” I am looking for at that time.

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