Civilization through the ages has devised countless innovative means of entertaining itself. The Pacific Islanders had intricate hula dances. The Ancient Greeks had magnificent comedies and dramas. The Romans had gladiators doing their impressions of hors d'oeuvres for lions. And the people of my town have… restaurants.
Before I moved to the ‘burbs, I never dreamed that people would line up for dinner at an average coffee shop the way that people queue up for tickets to a Springsteen concert. Mind you, I’m not talking about a 120-minute wait for filet mignon at Lawry’s. I’m referring to hours in the cold night air, anticipating the Grand Opening of Bob’s Burger Barn. In my neck of the woods, the debut of a new restaurant is tantamount to a Hollywood Premiere.
I’ll grant you, during my turbulent youth I was known to spend ridiculous amounts of time awaiting entrée to the latest hot spots, in order to inflate my shaky self-esteem. But we’re all adults now—our self-image ought to be built upon sturdier underpinnings than the local paper’s latest candid photo of our appearance at the Family-Style Taco-On-A-Stick.
Furthermore, the service is barely worth the wait. Don’t get me wrong, waiters and waitresses are as charming, diligent and clever as they ever were. But waitstaff in the post-Y2K era aren’t allowed to spend much time with you. As you enter, a charming hostess leads you to your booth. Soon afterwards, a busboy takes your drink requests. Ten minutes later, your spunky server makes small talk and takes your order. Ten minutes after that, a junior server and apprentice waitress deliver your food as busboy number two replenishes your drinks. By the time that your original server returns to take your desert order, you’ve forgotten how you know the person. For some reason, the current philosophy of waiting tables entails a greater division of labor than the construction of the First Transcontinental Railroad. Diner and Server are denied the interaction that a leisurely dinner affords. One never has the opportunity to build that special culinary relationship. (Consequently, one never leaves quite as large a tip…)
And, might I add, these sought-after local establishments are not dinner theatres. There is no Circque De Suburbia. There’s no Regional Repertory presenting Lady Gaga as “King Lear” in tandem with an Early Bird Special. The only entertainment available at these Root Beer and Sushi emporiums, is a surreptitious scan of the ticked-off, impatient faces gathered before you.
Because my neighborhood is designated by the county as a “Wholesome Hamlet,” all inhabitants within this zone are legally required to produce two or more children. This means that every adult surrounding me, awaiting a table, has a Baby-Sitter-Ometer ticking in his or her brain. You know the thought process: “I can’t wait to try those Egg Fu Yung Gyros, and I now owe the sitter $8.00.” “I’m having an awesome night out, anticipating my Thai Bratwurst and I now owe the sitter $22.80.” It’s like sitting in a taxi at rush-hour—the more you try to avoid the mounting cost, the harder it is not to focus on it. Meanwhile what you owe Muffy or Buffy multiplies exponentially like an earthquake on the Richter scale.
Not to mention the fact that today’s babysitter earns considerably more than yesterday’s Teamster. My yearning to indulge in the latest and greatest cuisine the community has to offer is tempered by the certain knowledge that this evening out will undoubtedly necessitate a second mortgage. The college fund will be depleted. We may have to put off that second car.
The “upside” of this predicament is that family-friendly areas such as mine are nearly devoid of crime. I am raising my kids in a place without splashy nightclubs. Sleazy bars are unheard of, as are edgy comedy troupes, as are raves. Our township is clean. Our streets are beautiful. …Our nightlife is painfully dull.
The lack of external stimulation is in direct inverse proportion to the near-hysterical popularity of newborn neighborhood dining establishments. We celebrate the creation of each bistro, saloon and lunch counter because, really, what else is there to do? Europe has its soccer riots; my locality has its restaurant rampages.
The good news is that, if one can simply restrain oneself and wait three short months to visit the newest, freshest chophouse, soda fountain or cafeteria, one’s waiting time dwindles from two hours to roughly two minutes. A modicum of patience insures that you will receive your coveted seat at the coolest venue in town—the only hitch is that, by then, it will no longer be fashionable. The natives of suburbia are a fickle bunch. In the span of time that it takes an average mountain man to grow a competitive ZZ-Top beard, our hottest hash joints have become as cold as a scoop of gelato in a Wisconsin winter.
Still, an evening out at a slightly-less-chic boîte is preferable to wasting one’s precious free time and disposable income languishing in endless lines on rock-hard pavement, simply to sample the latest fusion-fare and “be seen” with the beautiful people.
There is only one discernable advantage in visiting the newest Chicken-Fried Corned Beef Café, or Cajun-Style Pudding Palace during the first week they’re open. You get to play with all those strangely-shaped, light-up pagers. (Because we suburban patrons are all tightly-scheduled and attention-span-impaired, we appreciate the fact that those funky, futuristic pagers allow us the illusion of personal autonomy. We can stand 20 feet away from the maitre d’, instead of nose-to-nose, for those two interminable hours.) My personal favorite beepers are the square ones, which are adorned with a circle of oscillating lights. I’m always tempted to slip those babies into my purse and tape them to my lower back on rainy days—the subtle vibrations would be so soothing to my aching lumbar muscles.
And yet, even factoring in the entertainment value of agitated customers and aesthetically pleasing pagers, a night out spent in anticipation of the latest Ethiopian Pizza Rolls or Broccoli De Fois Gras is simply not worth more than 60 minutes atop my fallen-arches.
The whole dilemma is too overwhelming for my tired, maternal brain to absorb. It’s almost enough to make me consider cooking dinner!