What Restaurants Mean

Over Christmas break, my sister and I were talking about why restaurants are so much more important to other people than they seem to be to us. We grew up in a very frugal family that spent its early years with a low budget in a small town. At the time, three out of the four of us were cripplingly picky eaters. And so, with the exception of annual family vacations during which we’d eat at fast food joints three times a day, I didn’t grow up eating out very often.

Beca and I had a few theories as to why people so often want to go out:

  • Neutral ground: It can feel weirdly intimate to have someone you know only casually over to your house. After all, you live there. And there have definitely been times in my life that having someone over has required me to clean my entire house — like when we lived in a tiny pool house with the only bathroom in the bedroom, or when we lived in a studio apartment — so our whole life was on display.
A glimpse of the studio apartment, which was an old mill house store stuffed with cubbies and cabinets
  • Relaxing: Going out is fun! Staying in means someone has to cook, and that’s work. Isn’t that just what you did all day? Let someone else do the cooking and cleaning — go out. Right?
  • Gifting: The other person, the person you’ve asked to go out with you, is special, and taking her to the restaurant is your way of treating her specially. Let her order what she wants. Don’t force her to subsist on what you can scrounge up in your fridge.
Once upon a time, we had no dishwasher. Or microwave.
  • Pantry hurdles: It’s hard to cook if you don’t cook, if that makes sense. I was in the lucky position of receiving most of the kitchen stuff I still use back when I was 22 and sometimes couldn’t successfully scramble an egg. (My trademark dish at the time was pasta with marinara dumped cold over it.) I know people can get in over their heads with a long list of equipment or ingredients, and so restaurants feel less intimidating.

The answer, quite a lot of the time, is to just keep things relaxed and expectations low.  You’ll save money, and calories, and build up cooking skills and a working kitchen so you can host more easily in the future. I’ve said it before, but remind yourself again of scruffy hospitality, and the liberating concept of the crappy dinner party.

Farm share salad and frozen rolls at a grad school supper with friends.

Maybe you can throw something in the slow cooker, while they bring sides. Or you can find lazy recipes, like the time in college I just slathered jarred pesto on a frozen pizza to unexpected rave reviews. If you’re a parent and they’re parents, too, remember that they might feel relieved if your house is as disorganized as theirs; if they’re not parents and you are, they might as well see how it really is.

A friend once made a steak frittata using leftovers because she couldn’t afford enough steak to feed us all. One time I had a friend over for chili and made her season it herself (the limits of anosmia).  Sometimes we’ll have people over and they bring food they happen to have and we pull out food we happen to have and everyone gets fed over good conversation. Once, we were having a picnic outside the aforementioned crappy studio apartment and J killed a rat with a rock. (Remarkably, the guests who witnessed this act of brutality are still our friends.) Some of my favorite evenings have been meals thrown together in a tornado-hit house with a shoestring budget. There are times for a well-laid, thought-out table, and times, of course, to escape to a restaurant, but it’s worth considering your motive.

I think this was cider doughnut bread pudding, which I heartily recommend. No one will notice your dirty floors.


4 thoughts on “What Restaurants Mean

  1. Have you read Bread and Wine by Shauna Niequist? Have I asked you that before? I still have a hard time cooking but that book completely melted me into someone who longs to have people over and feed their bellies and souls at the same time. It alleviated all the pressure I put on myself to only cook if it will be perfect. 🙂

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    • I tried to find the scene in Brigit Jones — can’t remember book or movie — where she tries to cook this laborious meal way beyond her skill and everything degenerates quickly. I def know the feeling. I love Shauna Niequist and that one particularly! Who’s at the table matters more than what’s on it!


  2. This is a really interesting topic. I also grew up in a family that hardly ate out, because there were five of us kids and my mom is super frugal. It actually had the opposite effect on me for a while and made eating out at places like Chili’s feel exciting and desirable. Eating out a lot at both fancy and not so fancy places changed that.

    Right after Leo was born and we were living with my sister and brother-in-law, we’d go out for dates sometimes and I just got tired of how not cozy dates surrounded by other people were and how expensive dinners that I could make were. So then Joe just started perfecting his mixology skills at home and we’d stay up drinking and talking and those nights have become some of my favorite post-partum memories.

    I’ve been even more grateful for friends that appreciate scruffy hospitality because I’ve basically decided never to initiate eating out with Leo in tow. It’s just not fun for anyone to work around naptimes and deal with a baby who doesn’t want to sit in a high chair for an hour. So now I do a lot of tea and baked goods at home with my baby-less friends when they want to get together during the day. It’s just so much more relaxed.


  3. I love your postpartum drinks story! My older kid in particular is such a cripplingly picky eater that it’s more fun to go someplace where you don’t get a scowl for a bagged PB&J, and I love sampling all the things my friends fix that I don’t think to fix, or can’t make myself: roasted potatoes, butternut squash soup with sausage, homemade peanut butter ice cream.


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