“It’s not like going out with a date. You might go out [with women] just as often, but there are a lot more dynamics than just the food and the wine.” The feminine presence, often a civilizing factor, can serve to numb the basic urge to squawk when something is awry. You don’t want to seem a boor.
The quality of foreignness can also serve as a deterrent to self-assertion. “I think most people dine out on Valentine’s Day, which is a nightmare; New Year’s Eve, which is just foolish; and an anniversary or birthday, which is fine, because that’s your day — you don’t have competition. It’s guaranteed that Valentine’s Day and New Year’s Eve can only be fair at best, just because of the volume [of customers] and the pricing and everything else. So if they’re dining four times a year, and two of them are atrocious experiences, that makes them not want to go out at other times of the year.” (During other conversations I had with him, Charles mentioned Mother’s Day, which is similarly awful in terms of “competition.”)
“When a birthday comes along, it’s like, ‘Do you want to go out?’ ‘No! Remember when we went out New Year’s Eve? It was crowded, our table wasn’t ready, we had to wait at the bar, they were out of everything, it was very expensive, and you had a bad time.’ ” Amid the clamor of holiday dinners, there is no possibility of getting things done your way, and if these meals make up the bulk of your experience, the feeling of helplessness might give way to despair. You might resign yourself to being a polite guest in someone else’s home, never asking for the sort of personal gratification you would feel comfortable requesting in more familiar surroundings.
But I suspect that, mostly, the situation is more akin to a man who is reading a book on his porch as the sun goes down. He is engrossed in his book, so he fails to notice that the light is getting poorer and the air is getting colder. He may register that he is not as happy as he was an hour ago, but he will not register the cause. Finally, his wife comes out of the house and breaks in on his literary communion. “Why don’t you come inside? Aren’t you cold? And isn’t it getting too dark to read out here?” He moves inside and is amazed at how much happier he feels. In the case of the restaurant, everyone is so busy paying attention to the food that everything else tends to go unnoticed.
Not so, Charles Matson. “I’ve been going to restaurants for half of my life, since I was 21. The first time I dined — when I was paying the bill — was when I took this girl out for her 21st birthday. It was great. I actually called a friend of mine beforehand — he told me [to use silverware from the] outside in, how to tip the hatcheck girl, and all that — because my parents didn’t know any of that. That was a milestone. I lost ten pounds; I was very nervous. The servers really helped me ease that. If I used the wrong thing, they weren’t going to grab it away from me, but they did little things, like, ‘Perhaps you’d like this [instead of that].’ Like the snails. They would probably have said something like, ‘Have you ever had them before?’ ”
Following his initiation, Charles “would go out once a year, on my birthday or something like that. Then it picked up a lot when I was 23. By 25, I was out of control; 25 to 30 is when I really went wild. I’m more particular now. I probably dine at least every other month.” This does not include his regular research expeditions: evenings when he will go out on his own to expensive restaurants (he is single), “belly up to the bar, see what wines they have by the glass, order some appetizers, get the vibe, and skate out.”
For my part, I have been “dining,” as Charles calls it, since a very young age. As early as 5, I was being taken on the occasional outing to an upscale restaurant with my brother and parents and grandparents. Something in it must have appealed to me, because for my 16th birthday, I asked my grandfather to take me to L’Auberge du Cochon Rouge, the swankiest restaurant I knew of in nearby Ithaca, New York. My friend Jason had dined there and let on that it was très chic. I did not want to be outdone.
We arrived on the happy evening and were immediately charmed. The restaurant was situated in an old house; I still recall the wide-plank floorboards. Candles lined the walls, supported by great sconces covered with wax drippings. The tables were few and generally small, the air hushed and full of murmurs.
Our party of six soon put an end to that. My father’s laugh has never boomed into the silence as it did that night. We did not belong there; we were too jovial, too talkative. The waiters began to appear with less and less regularity; our (outstanding) seven-course meal took a full five hours to consume, and not because we were slow eaters. One particularly egregious and wonderful moment: my brother ordered a soup — I think it was cauliflower — which, when we ate it at home, was served hot. At the restaurant, it was served cold, a quality not mentioned on the menu. Mark signaled the waiter.
“Excuse me, my soup is cold.”
“Yes, sir, it is a chilled soup.”
“Oh. It didn’t say that on the menu. Would you mind heating it up?”
The only thing colder than the soup was the waiter’s demeanor. He looked at Mark with a mixture of contempt and horror, then took the soup back toward the kitchen in silence. When he returned, the soup was literally bubbling, a grand gesture of defiance from the kitchen. For years, we wondered what would have happened if Mark had told the waiter that the soup was now too hot and that he would like it cooled off a little.