Will the allure of theme dining ever get old?

I’ve dined at my fair share of upscale restaurants. Still, some of my favorite dining memories involve theme dining, even at home. My love of theme dining started in San Francisco, when I was about seven years old. The first restaurant we chose when we arrived had a different theme at every table. A cable car. A stage coach. It was so glorious to my seven-year-old self. I tried alligator nuggets for the first time. Yum! You’d think it would be hard to top.

Next we went to a Fisherman’s Wharf restaurant. It was a Polynesian restaurant located on a boat, and I believed the decor and mini-umbrella-bearing Shirley Temples were the height of cool. Good thing, because it literally took HOURS to get our food. By the time it arrived, I had fallen asleep, head on the table. I breathed in the delicious aroma of Polynesian chicken in its creamy sauce, marveled at its elaborate chafing dish. It was outstanding. But I, and my by-now-livid parents, were too tired to eat. They do not share my happy memories, but I just thought it was the coolest place EVER.

We had more success at the Hyatt Regency’s Ponte d’Oro, where everything was gold or some facsimile thereof. Celebrity George Peppard waived off the Maitre d’s attempt to seat him before us, although we would have been fine with the preferential treatment. Then the food was awesome, the service impeccable, and we sat in a booth that was fashioned as a “gold” cage. We are memorialized in a slightly faded photo of the night, forever tanned and beaming in our golden booth, my mom’s and my own trendy 70’s floor-length dresses beside my dad’s groovy lapels.

While San Francisco may have introduced me to theme dining, we had just as much fun with it at home. It came back to me on a recent night when we ordered Chinese food from a wonderful restaurant in Great Falls.

I arrived home with our takeout to find one son still mid-X-Box game, and the other about to start on the PlayStation, asking to take his meal upstairs. I, too, had just 20 minutes to eat before running outside to a neighborhood s’mores toasting. Fortunately it was taking place right outside my home, so I didn’t have far to go.

I settled in by myself to enjoy Kung Pao chicken, asking my fine frequent dining partner, “Alexa, play Chinese music”. She began to play something that sounded like a traditional tune, and I smiled, recalling childhood theme nights.

My mom would make an Italian meal and I’d put out a red table cloth, grab a bottle of Chianti bearing a well-melted candle and throw an Italian record on the turntable. Sometimes she’d make sukiyaki, and we’d play a Japanese record, and I’d wear a kimono. My dad was a good sport about it, too. It was so much fun, like taking a mini-vacation. When I think of those nights, I smile a deep smile, from the depth of me, grateful for the nights, and the memories that still stay with me.

I’m not an expert, but I suspect it takes three things to build these memories. First, we need to make the memories – do things out of the ordinary, out of our ordinary, out of the routine. It doesn’t take a lot of money or a lot of time to do this. I don’t think the Japanese record we had was exceptionally expensive, and it probably only took about an extra 15 minutes to throw on the red table cloth, the candlestick, and the Italian record. But it was novel. It wasn’t everyday, so it stood out.

Next, we have to be present in the moment of experience, to truly have the experience. We can’t have our phones out playing games, or reading through something for work. Our minds can’t be wandering around wondering when we’ll be done and able to move to the next thing. It’s not an experience if you’re working around it, squeezing it into things you’ve allowed to take priority for better or for worse.

And last, we have to be present in the moment now, to enjoy what we’re doing and to let our mind connect it more deeply to our past. It’s a rewarding cycle. We can always be making new memories, and if we are open to it, have some old ones at the same time.

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