Dining out is about people, not the food

November 24, 2008|By SUSAN REIMER

Ask your friends how this economic mess is affecting them, and I bet the first thing they say is that they are eating out less often - or maybe not at all.

At a time when you can't cut back on your mortgage payment or your car payment or just about any other payment, dining out is one expense you can reduce. That, and shopping for clothes.

While it makes me feel sensible and thrifty and virtuous to give up clothes shopping, putting an end to dinner out with my husband or my daughter or my friend Betsy just makes me feel sad.

It isn't the food and wine I am giving up. It's the people.

We never go to very fancy places. And we are never among the first at a new restaurant. As a matter of fact, we usually go to the same places.

My husband and I go to his favorite crab cake place at the City Dock in Annapolis. After he returns from a long stretch out of town, he craves a taste of home. He has a rum and Coke and I have a glass of white wine, and we have a conversation that isn't over a cell phone.

Jessie, my daughter, and I go out for half-price wine night at the restaurant where she used to work as a hostess and split a couple of exotic appetizers. It is the only way I can get her to sit still long enough for a conversation.

And Betsy and I always end up walking to a cozy restaurant in the neighborhood. We are usually in a desperate flight away from annoying family or stressful jobs when we go.

A Parade magazine poll reported that 48 percent of Americans are eating out less than they used to.

And according to a survey by the Nielsen Company, 62 percent of fine-dining patrons and 52 percent of casual-dining customers are eating out less.

Tim and Nina Zagat, of the popular restaurant survey, wrote in the Wall Street Journal that their survey of 45,000 restaurant goers nationwide showed that one-third were eating out less, 28 percent were visiting less-expensive places and 20 percent said they were cutting back on alcohol, appetizers and dessert.

No doubt about it, the restaurant business is getting hit six ways to Sunday: fewer customers, smaller checks, smaller tips, and soaring food costs.

Restaurants are trying to draw those customers back by offering small-plates menus, more substantial appetizers, fixed-price menus, expanded bar menus, drink specials and happy hours.

Independent restaurants are more nimble, and they can adjust their menus and their prices every week if need be. The chains can't do that, but they have the advantage of a national advertising budget.

And McDonald's, from what I have been reading, has the advantage over everybody. The company reported an 11 percent increase in profits in the third quarter and is marketing itself as a bargain in these tough times.

For many of us, the steady drumbeat of terrible economic news makes dining out feel like a decadent or at least an imprudent act.

Meanwhile, cooking class attendance is up. Grocery store sales, especially of prepared food, are up. And my friends Paul and Bill Malley of Pinky's wine store in Annapolis say sales are not only steady, they are improving as people decide to entertain at home.

Futurist Faith Popcorn calls it ubercocooning , and I am doing a lot of that myself. My cooking has improved since the picky eater left the nest, and I enjoy it. And I love the math: Supposedly it costs three times as much to eat a meal at a restaurant as it costs to prepare the same meal in your home.

But it isn't the same as going out to dinner.

The cook is always distracted and it is up to the guests to talk to each other. If you want to have a real conversation, a table for two or four in a quiet corner of a restaurant is the best way to accomplish that. Sometimes the food itself barely gets noticed.

The Zagats, in their Wall Street Journal essay, make the point that during the Depression, America turned to movies to forget their troubles.

"Today," they wrote, "for a generation that has grown up on the Food Network, dining out with friends or family in an attractive restaurant has become a source of comfort and entertainment."

Exactly. And it is also a way to connect with people you care about - people you may actually live with - but with whom you rarely spend any time. Life is too busy, too pressured and there isn't much left to nurture relationships, except maybe over a bite to eat at a neighborhood restaurant.

Last week, Domino's Pizza announced a partnership with TiVo that allows you to order dinner without actually calling anyone. Wow, I thought. If that isn't a sign of the Apocalypse, I don't know what is - the end of food as a vehicle for community. What this recession crippled, TiVo killed.

So I e-mailed my husband - we are both too busy for the phone - and suggested we go out to dinner and talk. "Sounds good to me," was his e-mailed reply.

I know it is reckless of us to do this. We will be spending money we don't have, last time I looked at our savings. We will probably regret it in the morning. But what the heck. We're just a couple of self-involved baby boomers with no thought for enormous national debt we are leaving our children.

For me, going out to dinner has never been about the food or the wine or the ambience or the thank-god-I-don't-have-to-cook-tonight.

It was always about the person sitting across from me.

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