Lileks: Remember restaurants? A refresher course

James Lileks, Star Tribune
·4 min read

Washington Post headline: "Help, I've gone feral! After a year away from restaurants, I need a refresher course."

Oh, come on. It's like riding a bike. Once you learn how to do it, you never really forget that the small container with white granules is called "salt."

If the whole idea of eating at a restaurant fills you with fear and confusion, we'll help walk you through the process. Ready?

The first step: trying to decide where to eat. This eventually turns into an argument about other things, sublimated issues that have built up for a while, so perhaps save time and just say, "You never want to try anything new, and that's why the shed isn't painted."

Next: Head out into the world. You probably will start by walking into the restaurant's glass door and banging your head. That's because you've been at home, where all the doors are open, and you've forgotten that you have to grasp a handle and pull it toward you.

"Hold on," you say, "I have a dim memory of these 'door' things. Don't you have to push the door sometimes instead of pull it?"

Yes. It'll be trial and error for a while. If a pull doesn't work, give it a push.

"I don't know. Everyone saw me hit my head on the glass. I'm going to go home and order GrubHub."

They'll understand. We're all in this together. Push the door, and enter the restaurant. There might be someone to greet you and ask if you have a reservation.

"A re-ser-va-tion. I remember those. Is that where we are supposed to arrive at 7, but we actually don't leave the house until 7, but that's OK because they'll hold it, even though it throws everything off for them the rest of the night? I mean, we could call and tell them we're running late, but they're probably busy, and, anyway, we're only a few blocks away now."

Fine. But how about if we rethink that and show up at 6:59?

"Why? The reservation is for 7."

True, but it shows you're responsible and a person of your word, and it also allows you the quiet satisfaction of staring daggers at the people who finished their dessert 15 minutes ago and are now oblivious of the needs of others.

"Oh, right! I'd forgotten about that. It's coming back to me. Should I also be quietly angry at the host who doesn't seat us at 7 even though we made the reservation for 7? Isn't it her job to make sure we are seated exactly at 7? Or should I just relax and realize that life is complex and full of many moving parts, and everyone cannot be expected to perform on my schedule?"

You could, but that would deprive you of the satisfaction of leaving a one-star Yelp review because the server brought the check three minutes earlier than you would have preferred and it made you feel like you were being hustled out, which was actually the case because you'd taken 25 minutes to decide on appetizers.

"What are those?"

Those are the small, exotic things you order to extend the experience and ruin your appetite so you end up taking half the entree home in a bag. Remember? Tuna carpaccio with a mustard drizzle dusted with Belgian coriander?

"I think we had an exchange student named Belgian Coriander."

Focus. Appetizers are an important part of the experience. Everyone agrees to order them because you're eating out, and when you're eating out, it's normal to have small food before the big food. Since everyone hates everyone else's choices, you get four appetizers, and then it turns out everyone really wanted the calamari. Anyway, the appetizers were listed on something called ... do you remember?

"A ... memmu. No, a manu. Wait! A memo! The server hands you a memo!"

Close. A menu. Now, visualize this. The server gives you a thick, tall book with six pages. What's your first thought?

"Disease! Sickness! Contamination!"

No, no. Calm down. Breathe. It has been sanitized. It's OK. Visualize opening up the menu. Look at all the wonderful meals! Choose one. Order it. The server will tell the kitchen what you want. What happens next?

"We ... talk?"

Yes, but what do you talk about?

"How long it's been since we went out to eat?"

Good. And then, perhaps, transcend the banalities of everyday life. Chat about the art on the wall, the music wafting down from the speakers, the news of the day. Engage in catty speculation about the other diners. Invent grand romantic back stories for the staff. Pretend you're 22, and it's a first date.

"I think I can do this. It's all returning. We linger over the dregs of the espresso, and who cares if there are people waiting for a table. This is our night."

You're ready to go back, all right.

james.lileks@startribune.com • 612-673-7858 • Twitter: @Lileks • facebook.com/james.lileks