I’m spending the week in Cambridge at a writing residency, where the food is mostly from the dining hall. When I think of something useful to say about dining hall food I’ll surely write it. What really struck me is when a friend sent me to Life Alive to get a healthy dinner in the day I was here before the dining hall opened. Looking around at everyone with their brown rice based healthy dishes, I realized I have never made restaurant food part of my normal dining routine. Not even your basic takeout or office lunch from the deli. Restaurants have ALWAYS equaled a special treat. Thinking about food someone else prepared as a regular part of my diet is. . . well, it’s a whole new way of thinking about meals outside the home.
I’m sure plenty of diet books have tackled the question of how to think about restaurant dining when it’s a part of your regular diet . . . which got me to thinking, what about the opposite? Are there people out there so used to restaurants that they don’t know the best way to approach dining out when it’s a special treat? That’s a learned skill to do right. And so, as a service to you, here are my top tips for indulgent restaurant dining:
1. Food is better with wine and wine is better with food. I don’t normally drink wine (I’m a spirits kind of gal) but at a nice dinner out – wine. Don’t know which wine to order? Ask. And be sure to tell the server all you know about what you like, even if it’s not much. I’ve memorized the line “I like a big, spicy Zin” because someone at my table once said that and I really like what came as a result.
2. Just because a food has a lot of description on the menu doesn’t mean it’s better. Making a tasty dish is not like tallying your checking account, adding on more ingredients doesn’t always add up to more enjoyment.
3. Larger portion sizes aren’t always better. Again with the economics: an excellent dinner should not be measure by a dollar-to-volume ratio. If it’s an intensely flavored food, then the amount that will satisfy you is going to be a lot smaller than what you’re used to. More than that is unnecessary and quite possibly you’ll feel ill.
4. If you don’t know what to order, ask the server. In fact, ask anyway.
5. If you really don’t know what to order, skip the entrée and get multiple small plates – it increases the odds of getting it at least partially right.
6. If you choose a dessert because it seems “less bad” than the dessert you really wanted, you have wasted a lot of calories.
7. And my favorite: One day at the corner coffee shop I was in line behind a kid who was old enough to read, but not much older. He’d been carefully working his way through all the sandwich / soup options posted on the menu. When he and his Mom reached the counter, the server asked “What would you like?” And the kid started reading from the top of the specials sheet – “Rice, black beans, cheese wrap” – in a tone that made it clear he intended to read off, verbatim, every answer to what he might like. The server quickly jumped in “A wrap it is.” The kid looked shocked at the rude interruption. Then a look of profound insight came over his face that said “He’s right, I will like that wrap and why worry about everything I might or might not like more?”. We should all have that realization.