The slog through struggles to solve relationship issues, tease out how I really feel, or plan my future often unfolds and resolves in restaurants. It’s true. Along a spectrum from fast food to fine dining establishments, I find the change of venue helps me think best. In work and personal matters, getting out of my seat and into a new environment jump starts my brain.
You may recall from an earlier blog post my realization that everybody and his brother has published a book…except me. So when I began to find it hard to break from work long enough to find an optimal flow for writing, I revived my go-to: Dining Out.
It’s a two-fer remedy because it offers the stimulation of a divergence, and also demands I carve out a block of time for the experience. Now at least once a week, you can find me in a restaurant with my iPad, ordering breakfast, and writing. I go at times that aren’t busy, don’t overstay my welcome, and place a substantial order and tip so it’s fair for the restaurant, the server, and me.
I’m comfortable dining alone, since starting during my college days abroad. Some of my best journaling, life planning, and tough decisions have taken place at tabletops with emptied plates and coffee refills. Recently, though, an innocent question caused mental blips. The past two times I went to the diner closest to home, hosts greeted my approach with, “One?,” and followed my affirmative with, “Would you like to sit at the counter?”
It’s not the first time I’ve been asked, but I felt an unexpected interruption of emotion, neither welcome nor warranted. I declined and took a table, but felt irritation veering toward offense at what I believed to be a suggestion that I didn’t rate a table like those who dine with companions. After all, at a relatively empty restaurant, parties of three rarely get offers for counter seating. Still, my response seemed irrational, and led me to wonder what lay beneath.
I have very fond memories of sitting at the counter of this diner with my boys in their younger days. I often sat in the middle, one sweet child on each side of me, ordering chocolate chip pancakes for dinner. My earliest counter memory is sitting with my dad at a stop on the way home from Pittsburgh. It was just the two of us that night nearly fifty years ago, but I can close my eyes and be there today.
We were losing my favorite grandmother in a year filled with the loss of family members on both sides. My mother had flown back to Jersey, and my dad and I pulled up the rear, driving home. He needed a coffee and bathroom break on the long night drive. Sitting at the counter, I ordered an English muffin, and he asked if he could help me butter it. I was old enough not to need the help, but I remember feeling very small and very young. It was a simple offer filled with love and strength. I took the help.
He did such a great job. No one in the world butters bread like my dad. He butters generously, patiently waits for the butter to soften on the warm bread, then spreads it. He did it that way for me that night, and then topped it with grape jelly. To this day, English muffins with well-melted butter and grape jelly remind me of my dad taking care of me when we all needed it.
My favorite counter memories aren’t times when I’m alone. They’re times when I’m seated close to people I love, closer than I would be at a table, and enjoying their company in a different way.
My host’s counter offer reminded me that I’m flying solo. Though loneliness wasn’t along for the ride at my arrival, it glommed onto me at the host stand after our exchange. Couldn’t the host see the laptop in my hand and realize that although I need only one seat, I am accompanied by my work? And must I now, having been unwittingly and silently labeled “alone”, put my solitude on display at the counter for all to see, the single diner who can’t possibly need a table? I suppose there is sediment stirring in my otherwise clear waters.
This morning, though, was different. Rather than subject myself to another sparring of innocent inquiry and simmering sentiment, I set off to a diner a bit farther away. It’s larger, with an expansive counter in comparison, so I could have been setting myself up for more of the same.
I was greeted by a host who asked, “One or two?,” despite the fact that there was no one standing near me. “One,” I replied. He looked at me with my iPad case in hand. “I have a nice booth for you over here, and it even has an outlet so you can plug in.” Now that’s the kind of host we all need.
NOTE: My very accommodating host and serving staff were at Amphora Diner in Herndon, Virginia. Thanks, Amphora!