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June 06, 2021  |  Rethinking dining-out habits  |  416 hit(s)

Over the last year and some, we didn't dine out, obviously, since we couldn't. Now that we're easing back into more normal life, I've realized that a year away from the lure of going out to eat has changed my thinking about it a bit.

Of course, many restaurants survived by offering take-out food. We got take-out a few times. But I realized that I didn't like this very much. For one thing, the third-party delivery services have been accused of some shady practices. But even if you order directly from the restaurant, it's a suboptimal experience. My summation of the experience of take-out food is this: cook something; leave it sitting for 20 minutes; serve and (probably don't) enjoy. Now I get take-out only if I intend to eat it more or less immediately.

One of the first things that changed was that we cooked more at home. I'm a, dunno, utilitarian cook: I can make a certain number of things, but I don't aspire to fancy cooking. What the enforced time away from restaurants did, though, was to encourage me to work on cooking things I like. For example, I like going out for diner-type breakfast. Over the last year I actively worked on re-creating that food at home. This was a success for me: I've made waffles, hash browns, eggs over easy, French toast, and hash that to me was entirely satisfactory. (I emphasize that I can now cook these things the way that I like them, not that I should work in a diner.) There are also lunch and dinner foods that I feel that I've perfected for my individual taste. (Same caveat.)

Homemade hashbrowns and eggs

This success has made me ponder the purpose of going out to eat. Certainly I (you too?) have paid for pretty indifferent restaurant meals. At this point, I ask myself why I should go out for a breakfast that I can probably do better (same caveat) at home. Should I wait in line on a Sunday morning to eat a mediocre breakfast? Do I really want to go out for another meal of American Mexican food? I'm beginning to wonder.

Then there is the cost. Any sit-down meal is going to cost $18–20 per person and of course can cost many times that. If I go out for dinner with my wife, we can easily be looking at, what, $50 at even a two-$$-sign restaurant, especially if we get drinks. If one or more of the kids come along, multiply that number. It's not that these prices are unreasonable; it's that it adds up. How much per week should I budget to get meals that have a likelihood of being pretty forgettable?

But dining out is not just about meals that you might or might not be able to make at home. Going out is about third places—not home, not work, but a third place. For example, unlike my parents' generation, we don't "entertain" at home in the way that seemed to be a premise in many 1950s-era cookbooks. If we want to socialize with people, our custom (and I suspect that of many folks) is to meet up for coffee or lunch or a beer. Obviously, socializing over a table—socializing at all—was severely constrained over the last year and some.

Pages from "The Joy of Cooking" (1975) about entertaining

My wife and I also enjoyed taking our laptops to a coffee shop or pub and working or writing. (I wrote many blog posts at an ale house that was within walking distance of our last domicile.)

Did these protocols change over the pandemic time? I have started meeting people again to catch up, and it's the same as before—find a place convenient to both parties, and then have breakfast or a beer or whatever. But I am much more aware now that I'm paying to socialize, so to speak, and I'm maybe a little more resentful when I shell out a hunk of money for something that wasn't very good, the company itself of course excepted. (It's great to see people in person again.)

Based on my limited experience again of working or writing away from home, I know that I still enjoy that. Coffee shops are opening up again to allow people to sit and work; my wife and I spent a couple of pleasant hours at a coffee shop a few Sundays ago plugging away on our respective writing projects.

Back to writing at coffee shops

It would be easy to get back into a habit of going out 4 or 5 times a week to do this. But it's possible that pandemic-time habits have made me rethink all this. Although it will be easy again to think that I'm too tired to make dinner at home and go out, I've gotten out of the habit. I think about whether I'll enjoy it and how much it costs. The same is true for grabbing the laptop and settling at a table somewhere to work. Fortunately, our libraries are opening up again to allow people to sit and work: a third place that doesn't cost anything to use (though the hours are not always convenient).

I don't think we'll change our socializing habits, though; I anticipate that we'll still meet people out in the third place. But the pandemic reset expectations about socializing, I think. We went months without seeing anyone in person, and I'm still okay with limiting face-to-face socializing to just occasionally, maybe a couple of times a month at most. In this regard I think I differ from my wife, who is not as content as I am to have long periods between visits.

I've read a number of articles about how there's pent-up demand for things to get back to how it was in pre-pandemic times. I suspect, though, that for some of us, the forced changes over the last year have done a reset on our expectations and, possibly, on our habits.