“Entering the room aromatic, heady aromas drift in from the kitchen. In anticipation of savouring something marvellous that will soon greet my taste buds, my mouth waters as I look forward to the fine meal ahead. A glass of wine is offered and I smile and greet the host. Arriving to the table I find some guests are there already, friends, colleagues, and intriguing strangers. We have all joined in this moment to celebrate fine food, good wine and each other’s company, one of life’s finer pleasures.”
Dining out in our social order is so popular that it is now said that two out of every three meals are consumed outside of the home. Sociologists, always spellbound by this kind of data, would have us believe that this trend is a reflection of our changing life-styles: with both men and women away from home for much of the day, people have less time to shop and prepare meals. This is baloney of course! For if it was true we would find that the busiest times for restaurants would be during the working week with the weekends not busy at all. Actually the reverse is the truth. All chefs and restaurateurs will tell you that the weekends and holidays are the busiest periods for most restaurants.
The truth is that we gain vast enjoyment from eating out and it transforms the act of eating into a social event rich in character and fantasy. Dining in a fine restaurant or even your favourite café or pub is an escape from the everyday routine.
We eat out because we can experience anticipation of a good meal, bliss and a sense of gratification. Together with the decor, lighting and tableware we can induce just the level of adventure that we crave. Plush chairs suggest luxury and good taste. Brightly coloured, hard plastic furniture gives us a sense of fun and a casual mood. Rooms that are dark, candle lit and cosy encourage romance. Restaurants that recreate a “retro” ambience allow us to recall the best of days gone by. Ethnic restaurants serve up excitement and food that allows us to take inexpensive voyages around the world. Whether we dine in the restaurants of fine hotels or in eateries that specialize in Thai, Chinese, Middle-Eastern, Indian, Italian or French cuisine, we expand our knowledge at the same time that we are enjoying new or well-beloved dishes that please our palates.
Another reason we enjoy dining out is that it gives us the opportunity to overindulge without feeling too much guilt. Of course it is necessary to eat to maintain the body, but restaurant dining is not at all a matter of survival. A bisque of fresh fish, gourmet salads, thick juicy steaks with Béarnaise sauce and a raspberry mousse with heaps of Chantilly cream have nothing whatever to do with human survival. Nor are bottles of fine wine, sparkling ice-cold Champagne, or a snifter of Armagnac or Cointreau related to the amount of vitamins or proteins our bodies need. Such delights are for pleasure and pleasure alone.
From the social point of view, restaurant dining involves a set of actions and rituals that induce conviviality, generosity, openness and a general air of comfortable sociality. To add to our pleasure, it also occasionally evokes the kind of seriousness and gravity which elevate our sense of well-being. Imagine, for example, the solemn silence with which a table of friends greet the arrival of a favourite dish in a restaurant. They might as well be in a museum, taking in a sight that takes away the breath and puts them in awe.
Even more – the selection of a restaurant is a reflection of our capacity for discrimination, letting us take maximum pleasure from food while we indulge our interests in pleasure, fashion, status and entertainment.
Following on from my perhaps self-important view of dining out, I would like to pass on a few suggestions to ensure your dining out experience will indeed be a fantasy fulfilled.
Planning. Any decent dining experience demands planning. Firstly, what do you feel like eating? Close your eyes and imagine the most delicious morsel you would pop into your mouth at that moment and then consider what restaurant options that you know that might fulfil this culinary fantasy. After you have decided on the venue choose who it is that you most enjoy having a meal with and invite them. Follow the simple “what. where, with whom and when. Now you have a plan.
Reservation. Always make a reservation. There is nothing worse than fantasizing over a brilliant meal with your favourite partner or group of friends, arriving and then finding that the place is fully booked and you are requested to sit and wait for a table; infuriating, disappointing and embarrassing.
Preferences. Try to know whether your companions have any food aversions or allergies. This should influence your restaurant choice. Most of us have had the frustrating experience of inviting friends to that fantastic little seafood bistro tucked away in some back street and then finding that one of your guests or companion is allergic to all types of seafood. Let your guest know where you are taking them and what kind of cuisine they serve. This is polite towards both your guests and the restaurant, and is simply a matter of good sense.
Directions. Get the address and know how to get there! If it is an off the beaten track hidden gem of a restaurant that no one has discovered yet (or so you can tell you guests) Send them a map and a set of directions. How many times have you gone around in circle after circle looking for the restaurant only to arrive late, agitated and in some cases having lost your table reservation (and face?)
Welcome If you are hosting the dinner with people who do not necessarily know each other then it is important to welcome people warmly to the event and introduce them to one another. This establishes the right relationships between people, breaks down inhibitions and confirms your own status as host….
Menu Choices. Important!!! It is the height of rudeness, to choose courses on behalf of your guests. However, when dining in a restaurant that specializes in a specific type of cuisine or in a particularly ethnic restaurant and you have dined there before you can share your experience regarding some of the house specials or how one should approach ordering a very obscure ethic menu. You have, after all, recommended the restaurant and cuisine so you are obliged to give a helping hand if need be but please do not come across as a pompous know it all and lord over the table.
Wine. The prudent and polite course of action when choosing wine is to first ask if any of the guests would like to choose or rely on the sommelier if there is one. The other alternative is to pre-choose the wine either from the menu or by providing the wine yourself matched to the food and you have told your guests appropriately. If guests are providing wine (always a fine idea), it is fitting to ask for a short description of the wine and always compliment their choice and enquire if and where other guests may acquire some of the same.
Witty Conversation. Your fundamental role at the dinner table is to be the host – so please try to preserve at least a moderation of dignity and stay sober!
You can then unobtrusively steer the conversation in the direction of entertaining topics. Most of all be the witty and entertaining host without being over bearing and domineering.
The Account. Now the important finale. It is both polite and the proper thing to do to very discreetly, and away from the table settle the bill unless of course you are a group of very close friends who regularly dine together and it is understood that the bill is shared. But always in the case of a formal dinner, business dinner, intimate dinner or a mixed social event try to avoid that awkward moment of silence at the conclusion of the meal, when it is obvious that the time has come to ask for the bill. Let’s be honest if you can’t afford to pay for your extravagant choices then you better just stay home and get take-out.
Thank You. Whether the dinner was a success or a less than ideal gathering, it is only fitting that the appropriate thank yous are extended. Most important are your guests – this demonstrates the esteem in which you hold them of course but it is also the ideal way of delicately bringing the gathering to a close. Always thank the chef and the restaurant staff (a nice tip always helps too!) which in turn will ensure you being “looked” after on your next visit.
I am sure that these few points and suggestions will ensure that your next dining out experience is a success.