Ah, but not in the way you’re thinking, although I’d love to hear about the most expensive/best/worst meal you’ve ever eaten when you were dining out. Remember that? I do, and I miss it, even though my family’s endeavors in that area rarely approached the exorbitant, the world-class, or even the gourmet. (One startling exception was the lunch that Dad and my siblings enjoyed at Le Manoir Aux Quat’Saisons in Oxfordshire, on one of my infrequent jaunts home. A member of our party was employed there, so we enjoyed a small discount, but even so, I think the damage for lunch was more than a fortnight’s take-home pay at the time. You’ll get the idea, if you browse the website, and you’ll also see what an absolutely lovely venue it is.)
No, I’d just as soon be replete from a meal at Shorty’s Lunch on West Chestnut Street, in Washington, PA, where two people can still eat their fill for under $10 the pair. Alas, part of the experience at Shorty’s is also that of the venue itself–in this case, 1930s diner and the grease that goes with it. The above Wikipedia link quotes Rick Sebak, a local documentarian (who, as it happens, I was at high school with), saying, “There’s no other place like it. They haven’t changed a thing in there since the place opened in the late 1930s. That’s what’s great about Shorty’s. It has a high funk factor.” True dat. In these COVID-19 days of “takeout only,” it’s clear that something is missing in the deal. Still good hot dogs, though. (They’re from Alberts, a local meat packer. His kiszka (black pudding to those on the other side of the pond) is the only one I’ve run into on this side of the Atlantic that reminds me of that which I ate at home as a child. Groats and all.)
But (please observe that nothing comes before “but”) today I’m thinking about embarrassing incidents that have stamped certain restaurant experiences firmly on your heart or in your brain. I’ll go first and relate three, none of which is supremely awful–I’d have to include experiences of dining out with my mother in order for that to be the case, and I can’t quite go there right now–but which, reflected in tranquility, cause me to miss the people involved, or the life-stage that they were at when they happened. Ready?
First: Dad, my sister, her friend and I went out for a Balti in Birmingham one day. I should think it was in 2004 or 2005. For those not familiar, a “balti” is a curry (choose your heat level) served in a metal bowl, with a separate bowl of rice, and a stack of fresh naan bread, in what Americans would call “family style”–you dole out your own portions at the table from the large bowls each is served in. It’s almost like a curry “stir fry.” (No idea how culturally appropriative, or not, this is, or how authentic, but they’re very popular in the UK.)
So, there we were. A noisy, cramped little place, full of Indians, Pakistanis, Brits, apparently of all ethnic persuasions, and us. And a charming server attempting to ascertain what we’d like in in the curry. We ticked off all the things we enjoyed (fortunately, we were all fond of plenty of heat), until we got to okra.
This stopped Dad (who was in his 80s at the time) in his tracks. “Okra!” he exclaimed. Marvelous stuff! RAGING APHRODISIAC!!!”
Suddenly, it got very quiet. My sister, her friend, and I developed a new interest in studying our menus. Dad finished ordering. (There was plenty of okra in our balti.)
Second: On what may have been the same trip to Britain, we organized a family get-together, including Auntie Pat (early 80s), Uncle Arthur (late 90s) several cousins, my brother, and the self-same sister, Dad, and me. We held our little celebration at the Peacock Inn in Worcestershire, a conveniently central location, and a lovely place. As usual, we were doing our family thing, loudly, with everyone talking at once and almost no-one listening to anyone else. Auntie Pat, a primary-school teacher (5-6 years old) for over 40 years, excels at this sort of thing, and since she has a particularly distinctive voice, it’s easy to pick her out, even amid the general racket we all make.
A lovely lady who must have been in her early 50s gingerly approached the table. “It’s Miss Muffett, isn’t it?” she asked, rather timidly.
She hadn’t seen Pat’s face, or heard Pat’s voice, since about 1960.
I think it’s the only time I’ve seen Pat at a loss for words in her life. (BTW, she was 97 last month, may she live forever. The “last made and latest left” of my Dad’s generation on his side of the family. Bonus point for identifying the slight misquotation from one of her favorite poems).
Third: This one took place in the good old US of A, at the Eat ‘n Park in Altoona, PA. Like Shorty’s, Eat ‘n Park is a local institution, a regional chain in parts of PA, OH, and WV. It started as a drive-in in the late 1940s, and also like Shorty’s, it maintains a loyal customer base. I regularly found myself the youngest person in the dining room when we took my mother-in-law out for a meal. “Where would you like to go?” we’d ask, and we’d list several alternatives ranging from the very nice to a bit special. “Umm.” she’d inevitably say. “Could we go to Eat ‘n Park?”
So when our granddaughter was born in 2008, you bet we took her to Eat ‘n Park, and told her about the good times we’d had as a family there over the decades. The waitresses remembered her and “Grandpa,” and she always felt among friends, as she enjoyed the kids’ mac ‘n cheese, accepted her free cookie, and scribbled all over the placemat with the crayons she was given.
And one day, when she was about two-and-a-half, she wanted to share a special accomplishment with her friends at Eat ‘n Park. I expect she (who has a fine sense of drama) thought about the best way to communicate her achievement as she ate her meal and drank her milk. And finally, the moment arrived! When she’d eaten her fill, she suddenly jumped up and put her feet on the faux-leather of the booth seat, turned herself to face the other customers, lifted her skirt up over her head, and shouted “I HAVE BIG GIRL PANTIES ON!”
All the old ladies and gentlemen in the room, and every member of the staff, dissolved in fits of laughter. Our granddaughter was very pleased with herself. And then we had ice cream.
That’s all I got.