Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Dining Out

I just realized that today is the day after my one year blogging anniversary. How about that.

Over the years, I’ve found it can be very difficult to find companionable dining out partners. I don’t mean dates necessarily, I mean other people with whom you just enjoy eating out. The trickiest setting is usually the office, where your choices are (obviously) limited to your coworkers. Outside-of-work friends who turn out to be dud dining partners can be steered away from full meals to drinks or something, but coworkers you’re sort of stuck with until they go find another job (or you do).

“Bad” dining companions come in all stripes. Some of them just have plain old bad manners. Others just don’t have the same “eating out” philosophy you do. They may like types of food you don’t, or they may want to eat fast food all the time, when you don’t. The things that make them unsuitable run the gamut, but the ultimate outcome is the same: you never want to eat with them again.

In my first job, there were two people who stand out as challenging dining companions. Both were very nice people, but not the sort of people you really wanted to eat out with. One woman you pretty much didn’t want to eat with at all, ever, in or out. She wore the brightest pink lipstick, reapplied endlessly throughout the day, and not wiped off prior to eating. Thus, we’d go out for sandwiches, and after her first bite (and her second and her third), there would be a big ring of hot pink lipstick on the bread where she’d taken a bite out of it. Very not appetizing.

The other woman exercised more control in her make up application, but she was the world’s slowest eater. I think she could have won some kind of prize. We’d go out for lunch, and everyone else would be folding up their napkins and finishing up the last of their chips, and she’d have taken four or five dainty bites from the first half of her sandwich. We were late getting back to the office countless times because of her. You’d think that maybe the rest of us were gobbling our food. I might agree (I’ve been known to eat too fast), but it didn’t matter how many people were in attendance—she was always the last one done, and always by a pretty wide margin.

I used to occasionally travel with a sales rep who was a pretty decent sales person, but had the most atrocious table manners…ever. The guy could not sit down to a meal without getting at least a third of it on his clothing. It was a little like eating with a wolf pack that was devouring a bison, except this guy made a bigger mess. He took bites that were so big they didn’t even fit on the fork. I might be alone in this, but I find it pretty tiresome to consume meal after meal with someone who can’t figure out that the reason he stands up from the table with a significant portion of what he ordered on his suit jacket is because he’s eating like a slovenly pig. A blind slovenly pig.

Of course, dates can be challenging too. I used to date a guy who was a horrible dining companion. If he didn’t pick the restaurant, It Sucked. We went to an Italian restaurant in Old Town Alexandria one time, and he made a point of letting me know that his Diet Coke tasted like it was made with water from the Potomac River, that his entrée was cold, and that he thought the décor looked like something out of an old lady’s bedroom. Shockingly, that restaurant is still there and thriving fifteen years later. I might be a little thin-skinned about this, but when I pick a restaurant and someone repeatedly bashes it, I get a little testy. Really, if you can’t think of something nice to say, just don’t say anything. Suffice to say, that relationship didn’t last very long.

At one point I was part of a playgroup, and the mothers decided to go out to dinner every month or two. It’s almost inevitable that the more people you get eating together, the more chance there is for some kind of clash. At one particular dinner, the problem arose from a situation that I avoid whenever I can—“let’s share.” Two women decided to split one entrée. There was a lengthy debate about what that entrée should be. When the waiter arrived to take our orders, everyone else ordered, and it was down to the “sharers.” They were still debating their two choices, but it had deteriorated into a Chip and Dale routine from a Disney cartoon.

“Well, the butter chicken is fine with me.”
“But only if you’re sure,”
“No really, it’s fine, if it’s OK with you,”
“it’s OK with me, but you mentioned the chicken tikka, and I’m fine with that too,”
“It’s up to you—I’ll eat either,”

And so on, with the waiter growing visibly annoyed and the two women continuing on like this for upwards of five minutes. I’d bet money he spit in their food.

Needless to say, the same sort of debate ensued when the leftovers were to be divided. Who was going to take the leftovers? Did they need a second container so they could split? I won’t even relate the exchange because it was so tedious. I don’t even remember the outcome.

In any dining out situation, one of these two women could be counted on to suggest that we all “order something and share it.” I personally find this idea to be abhorrent. In almost any kind of restaurant, I have something I like and get repeatedly—Indian: Chicken Tikka Masala, Thai: Pad See Ew, Chinese: Beef with Broccoli—and maybe because I never actually went to a proper kindergarten, I don’t like to share. If I have leftovers, they are tomorrow’s lunch. As a result, I often tried to recommend cuisines that are not conducive to sharing: Mexican, Italian, American.

But I think the worst dining-out-with-others experience I ever had wasn’t actually the result of a picky or otherwise challenging coworker, but because of his wife.

I spent a week in Dublin on business many years ago, and my coworker was going to be there for two weeks. The day before I left, his wife flew in so she could spend the second week with him and get a reduced-price vacation. Her first night there, we went out to dinner in a part of town called Temple Bar, which is wall to wall restaurants and bars. Many of the restaurants had their menus posted outside, which was how we concluded we’d pick a place. We wandered along, trying to make a decision on where to eat. The wife assured both of us that she wasn’t picky, and that she’d eat just anything—whatever we wanted was fine with her.

We approached one restaurant and perused the menu. My coworker turned to me and said “What do you think?” I said it looked fine to me. He turned to his wife. She wrinkled her nose and said, “There’s really nothing there that appeals to me.”

So we walked on. As we were leaving the doorway the wife announced, “But I’m not picky—I’ll eat anything. Whatever you guys want is fine with me.”

We came to another place. The coworker and I shrugged at each other to indicate, this looks fine. His wife stepped up to the menu. “I don’t know, “ she said, “Mexican food in Dublin? I’d rather not risk it.” So we moved on, with her again repeating the refrain, “I’m not particular—anything is fine with me.”

After this same series of events occurring three more times, she finally asked a hostess at another restaurant for a recommendation for a good fish place. At last!, I thought, we’ll be able to eat. We had to take a cab to get there, but I felt it was well worth it.

We all ordered, and the meals came out. My coworker asked both me and his wife how our entrees were. I said mine was fine. She made a face and said, “It’s OK, but I kind of prefer a cream sauce to this citrus sauce that’s on it…”

I feel I exercised remarkable self-control. I did not reach across the table and slap her in the face while shouting, “Then why did you not read the menu, since the description of your entrée specifically said it came with a citrus sauce?!?” I wanted to. Oh, I wanted to. But I didn’t.

Thank goodness that was my last night on that trip. I’m not sure she’d have survived if I’d been there one more night.

So you’re probably thinking by now that it’s a wonder I can find anyone I want to eat out with (or perhaps conversely, that I can find anyone who is willing to eat out with me). However, I would like to point out that I’ve just talked about only six people I’ve known over the years. I left out the hundreds of others who are perfectly reasonable people to share a meal with. These are the outliers in this category. As in almost any aspect of life, it’s the exceptions to the rule that usually prove to be the most memorable, either for good reasons or bad. Most of the time I don’t have any issues at all with my dining partners. After all, I’m not picky.

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