Dining In and Dining Out(side)

I’ve been the primary cook about our household for as long as we’ve been a family, though the ways in which I deploy my culinary skills have evolved significantly over the years. When Marcia and I were younger and less financially comfortable, especially in the years soon after Katelin was born, the vast majority of our meals were eaten at home, and prepared with economically sourced supplies. I actually used to carry a little calculator into the grocery store with me to tally my purchases, making damned sure that the weekly food budget was not exceeded, not by a penny. We still smile about those days when discretionary spending limits forced me to make a tough decision on which one of Guns N’ Roses’ two Use Your Illusion CDs we could actually get when they were first released together, since we couldn’t afford to buy both. Oh, the hard choices! Oh, the humanity!

Dining Out was definitely a luxury in those days, and saved for special occasions if the destination was a nice one (well, in relative terms, anyway, since we lived in Idaho at the time), or as a socializing reprieve if we were having more mundane and affordable fare with friends and neighbors. But then as our financial situation improved over the years, so too did the frequency, expense and (some of the time) quality of our Dining Out experiences. Back in 2012, I developed and posted a listing of what I then considered to be my nine best Dining Out meals ever and with whom I shared them; it looked like this, and I still hold each of these dinners dear:

  • Channel Bass Inn, Chincoteague, Virginia (me and Marcia)
  • Cafe Marquesa, Key West, Florida (me, Marcia and Katelin)
  • Zuzu, Napa, California (me and Marcia)
  • River Street Cafe, Troy, New York (many meals with many people)
  • Driftwood, Oranjestad, Aruba (me, Marcia and Katelin)
  • Barbes, New York, New York (me, Marcia, Katelin and our friend Pat, two meals)
  • Hótel Búðir Snæfellsnesi, Búðir, Iceland (me, Marcia and Katelin)
  • V Mertz, Omaha, Nebraska (me and Marcia)
  • Unknown parilla (steak house) in La Recoleta, Buenos Aires, Argentina (me, Marcia, Katelin and Katelin’s friend, Kenna. I can’t recall or find the name because apparently it has closed; I know where it was, but it does not show up on maps anymore)

Having spent 2015 to 2019 in the Food Mecca of Chicago, and having traveled internationally numerous times since 2012, we’ve experienced many more exquisite meals at superb places that could potentially be added to this listing. Maybe I’ll do that post at some point. I’ll have a lot of meals to consider from our Chicago Era, because the wealth of local choices and the presence of a massive grab-and-go style grocery store in our condo building reduced the number of meals I cooked from scratch at home to truly negligible levels. We essentially inverted our original family paradigm, such that it was typically a special occasion meal (e.g. Thanksgiving Dinner) that was cooked and consumed in our condo, while routine meals were experienced elsewhere, even though the quality of offerings available made even some of those regular evenings out quite divine from a culinary standpoint.

That said, it’s also important to note that we’ve experienced myriad forgettable or offensive Dining Out experiences along the way as well, even in Chicago and overseas, with their number rising in direct correlation to the number of Dining Out meals we consumed. When we lived in Iowa the first time (2011 to 2015), we ate most of our meals at home, largely because I found the local restaurant scene to be so very dire. Yes, you could find some decent-ish food in Des Moines, but a Dining Out experience involves three key elements — food, ambiance, and service experience — and getting just one or two of them right isn’t good, at all. Unfortunately, missing one-to-all of those three elements seemed to be the norm in Central Iowa, prompting me to write this aggravated slate of advice to the region’s restaurateurs, based on loads of real-time, real-world Dining Out Disasters.

So I knew when we moved back to Iowa from Chicago in 2019 that I’d be cooking at home a lot more than I had the prior four years, out of necessity, whether I liked it or not. I will note, to be fair, that the Des Moines dining market had improved a bit while we were away, with a few more quality options emerging and a widespread reduction of the “Closed on Sundays” theocratic nonsense that used to drive me crazy here. Room ambiance remains a chronic problem in Des Moines, with inept service still nipping at its heels in many locations, but at least the trends are moving (a bit) in the right directions, if slowly. But, still: it’s no Chicago. And it never will be, no matter how desperately the market aspires for distinction.

Then, of course, and as is the case in so many narratives penned in 2020, COVID happened. Iowa’s response to the pandemic has been generally poor (our Governor ranks last in the Nation in terms of surveyed reaction to her handling of the virus), but there was a relatively brief time when the restaurants did shut down completely, and even if they hadn’t, we weren’t about to go put ourselves at risk by stepping foot in any of them. So cooking at home moved from a “most of the time” to an “all of the time” paradigm, and you know what? I was (and remain) pretty good with that situation.

Marcia and I have spent less, ate healthier, and had far fewer aggravations alongside our meals together since returning home from Florida in March. I’ve developed a nice roster of entrees that we rotate through, including various Indian, Japanese and Chinese stir-fries and sautes, some choice Mexican-inspired favorites (I’m particularly pleased with my posole and self-developed Mexican Lasagna), pasta, rice and tortilla-based dishes built around non-meat products, pizza, salmon, tuna, shrimp and beef with various sauces, and a nice mix of sides, including Low Cackalacky childhood faves like succotash and black-eyed peas. (We’ve not had any chicken or pork, though, as an active act of protest against the ways that Iowa has treated its meat-packing workers in recent months). I’ve also made and eaten more green salads in the past six months than I did in the six years prior, if not longer. So Dining In is okay with me. It’s a positive adaptation to a negative circumstance.

There are times when we can’t Dine In, though, so we’ve been Dining Out(side) in lieu of Dining Out for those meals. Socially distanced picnics with Katelin and John allowed us to visit and catch up with them during the darkest early days of disease time. When we have traveled out of Des Moines, we have taken to finding restaurants that can manage decent carryout experiences, and then eating them in pleasant outdoors environments. (This is easier when the weather is nice, obviously). We had some stellar outdoor meals during our trip out West last month, in fact, a memorable aspect of a soul-affirming change of scenery.

It has been interesting to see how well (or not) various restaurants have adapted to this changed food-service paradigm. One of our favorite neighborhood restaurants was also one of the first to offer carry-out options, which we were glad to give a try for our Anniversary Dinner in June. They seemed to be doing everything right: online ordering, curb-side pickup, contact-free transactions, etc. But, unfortunately, they missed two important elements: creating and preparing food that would travel well, and paying attention to what the customer ordered. We went with their prix fixe menus, choosing three items each, for a total six total items ordered — four of which ended up being the wrong items, or were wildly inconsistent with the menu descriptions, or were made with poor-quality ingredients. I can’t say I’d count them as a favorite neighborhood restaurant anymore accordingly.

I suspect that the restaurants which survive and thrive through and beyond the pandemic are going to be those who can do a much better job on this front, and who remain willing to continue hewing to such a model even after the virus has run its course and/or we have widespread vaccinations available. Because, honestly, at this point even if you remove fear of infection from the Dining Out experience, I’m not feeling particularly eager to reintroduce those two uncontrollable elements that can so wreck a meal — ambience and service experience — into my dinnertime plans, knowing how many truly enjoyable, healthy, affordable and aggravation-free meals we’ve had during lock-down days.

That may certainly be making lemonade from lemons and/or seeking silver linings behind grey clouds, but I think it’s going to be a near-permanent change to the way that I view the acquisition and consumption of foodstuffs. And I suspect that I am not alone on that front. My only regret in feeling this way comes from empathy with and sympathy for those whose careers will be impacted adversely and permanently by such a change of consumer sea-state in the Dining Out industry. I know that we are fortunate to work in fields that will not require such radical self-reinvention, and to have the means to meet our nutritional needs in a way that is pleasing to and healthy for us.

Our COVID Era philanthropy has been devoted toward food security accordingly. Perhaps you, too, could consider reallocating some of your erstwhile Dining Out dollars in a similar fashion? Well, if you already have all of your Guns N’ Roses CDs properly acquired and sorted, anyway.

While I do the cooking, I do not do the baking. That’s Marcia’s purview, and her banana scones were a most delicious treat. (I am hoping that when she sees this post, she will be inspired to make them again, om nom nom!)

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