As I sipped my Manhattan I couldn’t help but notice the kid and his girlfriend a couple tables away. He wasn’t really “a kid”, of course, my best guess was that he was 25 or 26. But to any guy with a gray beard he was definitely “a kid”. The kid was clean- cut and well dressed and he was obviously trying to impress his date by acting like he went out to dinner every night of the week. But there were certain signs that this was not the case. For one thing, he had eaten his salad with his dinner fork. For another, he had ordered meatloaf. Thirdly, his napkin was still sitting folded on the table. No one goes out to dinner and orders meatloaf. At least I’ve never seen such an occurrence --- not seen it since I was 25 or 26.
The kid’s date or girlfriend was cute as a button. Short dark hair, smooth skin, slight make-up --- you know the routine. The kid was now buttering an entire slice of Italian bread and eating it like a sandwich. Why was I looking at this kid? I was looking at him because he was me --- many, many years ago. I glanced across the table at my very attractive wife, Jane. She was reading the menu and appeared totally uninterested in what I was looking at. She probably knew the menu by heart, but she always checked it to ascertain if anything was new.
The kid had hardly touched his wine --- a sign that he was somewhat more accustomed to drinking beer. It’s funny how your tastes change, as you get older. Looking at my Manhattan, I remembered that I use to order it two-thirds rye and one-third sweet vermouth. As the years went by the proportion of vermouth shrank until it got down to one drop --- not a splash --- but just one drop. And after several forays into the South, I learned I had to specify the kind of rye I wanted. They continue to make Manhattans with bourbon in many parts of the South.
Then I thought of all the foods that I eat now that I wouldn’t have touched in my mid-twenties: Cooked onions, horseradish, radishes, mushrooms, onion rings, clam dip, prime ribs, filet mignons, steak au poivre and more. Yes --- tastes change. I remember going out to dinner occasionally in my late twenties and always ordering meatloaf because I didn’t want to see a speck of fat on my meat. Jane was still studying the menu like it was an engrossing novel. The kid had just finished polishing off that big piece of bread.
Yes, over the years you learn a lot about dining. Over time I leaned about which fork or spoon you should use for each kind of food, how to properly butter and eat bread, what to do with your napkin and I tried different salad dressings and other foods. Let’s face it. When you’re young you can’t afford to go out for dinner frequently. I sure couldn’t do it in college or in law school --- or even in the early years of marriage. As a matter of fact I couldn’t have afforded to dine out regularly until I was in my mid-thirties. After that Jane and I would have “dinner out” on an average of twice a week. And what great restaurants we had gone to over the years. In Pittsburgh there was The Colony. At the Colony all the waiters (there were no waitresses) were dressed in tuxedos. The table settings were impressive. Three house salad dressings were served with your salad in a silver tripartite dressing server. Their filet mignons were flavored with hickory. Everything was delicious. In Charlottesville, Virginia there was the Boar’s Head Inn. There, all the waiters and waitresses were dressed in Early American costumes and the décor was that of the late 1700’s. The wine menu included several grand crus and the dinner menu was extensive. In Baltimore there was an Italian restaurant called DiMimo’s. There, you were taken upstairs where the room was finely decorated and had a piano player in a tuxedo. The red sauce was to die for! It was one of the best Italian restaurants we had ever been to. In Washington, D.C. there were numerous fine restaurants. Sam & Harry’s had filet mignons that were out of this world. Smith & Wollensky’s had a filet au poivre that was superb and was accompanied by hash brown potatoes that were fantastic. The Prime Rib, of course, was known for its great prime ribs and also for its paper-thin potato skins.
Of course there were a number of first-class restaurants in Disney World, including Harry’s Safari Bar & Grill. There, there were large stuffed gorillas and other animals sitting around, which your waiter would eventually place at your table for picture taking reasons. For some reason everyone just had to have their picture taken with their wife and a gorilla. Harry’s salad included grilled pineapple pieces and cashews, along with a special dressing. Their filet mignons were outstanding. In Charlotte, North Carolina the place to dine is the Bistro 100 in the center of town. There, the filet au poivre accompanied by thin onion straws are a real treat. In Charleston, South Carolina one of the best restaurants is Charleston Chops. You sit in the balcony overlooking the downstairs tables and the table settings are magnificent! The filet mignons there are outstanding! And of course you top it off with a slice of pecan pie!
Of course there were many fine local establishments, as well. Over the year’s they would come and go. To think of it, there were only two that we still frequented that were in existence when Jane and I got married 25 years ago. We were sitting at a booth in Mac’s Restaurant tonight --- and that was one of the two. Here, their Veal Parmigian was one of the best that I’d ever had. The breading didn’t fall off the meat when you cut it and the red sauce was superb! The other “old-timer” was Sweetwater Casino about 35 minutes away where they had an absolutely delicious flounder almandine accompanied by a Duchess Potato.
Ron, our waiter, came over to take our order. Jane ordered a stuffed pork chop, which was one of tonight’s specials, while I ordered my usual veal parmigian with angel hair and red sauce. The kid and his date were now being served ice cream. God, they were so young! I then remembered when Jane and I were first married and we were “regulars” at Mac’s because it had been our favorite restaurant when we were dating. Our usual routine was to have two drinks before dinner and then eat slowly resulting in a two-hour dining routine. One night one of the waiters who was accustomed to waiting on us said after our meal. “The two of you are ‘diners’. You don’t come here to eat --- you come here to dine!”
Then I noticed that the kid had finally started utilizing his linen napkin. He was wiping the meatloaf gravy off of his shirt. Of course if the napkin had been on his lap instead of remaining folded on the table this mishap might not have occurred. He seemed somewhat embarrassed and his date was looking the other way pretending that she hadn’t noticed this. But then she motioned to his water glass and he began to dip his napkin into the water and rub it on his gravy spot. “Good girl”, I thought, “she’s going to stick with this guy and get him through their early dining years”.
Just then I noticed that Jane was looking at the other couple, too. “He’d be better off using soda water to get that gravy off”. Yes. I remembered the time that I had spilled something on my shirt and Jane had suggested the same remedy. You sure learn a lot of tricks over the years. Yes, we’re “diners” now --- much older --- but still “diners”. I thought about how many servers take advantage of young couples out alone. They can be condescending and officious. But if they realize you are a “diner” you usually get much better service. The best way to indicate your “diner” status is to be a “regular, of course. But even if you’re there for the first time they can tell you are a “diner” when they come to take your drink order and while looking at your wife they ask, “Would you care for a before-dinner drink, M’am?” At that point your wife says nothing but you say, “The lady will have a glass of the Pinot Grigio and I will have a Manhattan straight up with rocks on the side and could you have them make it with Seagram’s 7 and just one drop of the sweet vermouth and a cherry”. The waiter quickly gets the idea that you dine out quite frequently.
The kid was paying his check now as our salads were being served. You could tell he was trying to figure out the proper amount of the tip in his head. He finally put a number of bills on the table and he and his date arose from the table. He was now heading to the door while walking ahead of his date. Yes, he will learn --- just give him time. Once again, I thought back to my meatloaf days. As I ate my salad with the balsamic vinegarette dressing I noticed a guy about 45 wearing a baseball cap on backwards and blowing his nose in his linen napkin. “On the other hand”, I thought, “some people will never learn”. I hope that kid enjoyed his meal and continues dining out because there is a great wide world of dining out there. Our meals arrived a short time later.
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