by Jayne Chobot
Foodie is not a word that I enjoy or use to call myself. I do like food, a lot, and after years of working in hospitality and with a healthy dose of curiosity, I know quite a bit about it. I even cook it. But really I’m just a very passionate and sensual person, enjoying all senses with equal vigor. A great meal in my book satisfies all of them; it’s beautifully presented, obviously it smells and tastes good, and it’s enjoyed while surrounded with good company.
Who you dine with makes just as much of an impact on your experience as the person preparing the food, the decor, the music, the seat, the view, the service and the choice of wine. The balance has to be right. If any of these are not quite right, it will negatively affect the dining experience whether you realize it consciously or not. I recently enjoyed some great food at a beautiful restaurant with some incredible women. But the acoustics were off and I had to struggle to understand my friends, and because of this I have no desire to return. A few weeks ago I ate at one of the “Best New Restaurants” in New York City and although the food, decor, and wine were all as great as promised in the reviews, and my dining companions were expertly curated I must say, the server’s attitude made us close out early and continue our evening elsewhere. I wanted great food but my limited time with my friends was more important.
Some of the best meals of my life come with really great stories. There is a Spanish tapas restaurant in Greenwich Village called Alta that I read about in a travel magazine years ago as a place where top chefs go when they go out, always a good sign. I chose it for my birthday celebration with my fabulous group of friends, and I still smile when I think about that dinner and will recommend the restaurant without hesitation. I have no idea how many stars that place has, or what any of the critics had to say about it. I know that we had a Bacchanalian feast for the record books and laughed harder and left with bellies and hearts full. Everything was perfect. I remember running into Calvin Klein and John Leguizamo, and the cougar hitting on my friend at the bar. I remember friends from different parts of my life meeting each other for the first time and it makes me so happy to see that they are still friends. I remember the sounds of the kitchen and the music and the laughter, the taste of the bacon-wrapped dates and white anchovies and the Cava, the love I felt surrounded by so many wonderful friends and the man sitting next to me who would ask me to marry him a month later.
I remember every beautiful moment of a dinner in Paris, laughing at the intimidation we felt looking at the triple-phonebook-sized wine list and welcoming course after course of food far more rich than we were used to eating, but enjoying the rare gluttonous indulgence with friends from around the world. I remember being with some of those same people in Cancun clinking the biggest margarita glasses I’ve ever seen. I remember Sex and the City-like conversations on sidewalk tables in New York with my girlfriends with mimosas, a business dinner on Central Park South with a table full of South Americans, and another one in East Berlin where we laughed so hard with a group of Austrians that beer came out our noses. And I remember everything being absolutely perfect at that first date dinner with my Texan at WD-50 in the Lower East Side when he came to visit me in New York one autumn evening three years ago.
The first “epic dinner” I experienced was on a beach sixteen years ago. I was in Greece as an exchange student, eating with my host family and their friends at tables under white lights and stars on the edge of the calm and warm Aegean Sea. On my plate was a whole grilled fish, something I’d never seen before, but I followed the lead of everyone around me and I can still taste and hear everything from that dinner if I close my eyes and think back. I have no idea what that restaurant was called, or what most of the people around me were talking about in Greek, but it’s not important. What was important was what I sensed, what I experienced, and who I was with. That dinner started the evolution of this “foodie,” shaping me to appreciate the beauty of these multi-sensory experiences around a table.
But this all works the other way, too. I have been fortunate to dine at some of the best and most critically-acclaimed restaurants in the world, but sometimes, unfortunately, with people I didn’t love or enjoy. Pained conversations, lack of any kind of intellectual or (in the case of a date) sexual chemistry, uncomfortable situations, and quite simply a bad day physically or emotionally have ruined their share of meals for me and I would imagine for most of you. Some of the restaurants I have no desire to return to because the memory is just too bad, boring, or even worse, so completely forgettable that I committed little to nothing to memory.
While on a run on the Katy Trail here in Dallas earlier this year, I spotted a restaurant that looked like my favorite little bistros in Manhattan and Paris. The doors were all opened up to the warm air, the wicker chairs were the French cafe standard issue; t was exactly what I missed since moving to Dallas. I wanted to call up some friends to grab a table, order a couple bottles of wine and S. Pellegrino, and eat and drink and talk for hours until we were kicked out. How did I not know it was there? Why haven’t I been there before? Until I realized… I had.
During one of my first visits to Dallas, I sat at one of those charming little tables for a brunch with some people I was meeting for the first time. Suffice it to say there is a reason I blocked it out. The food was fine, standard French-American bistro brunch fare, the service was sufficient, and as mentioned the decor was charming. But the conversation was so forced, unenlightening and uncomfortable that it dominated the entire experience for me. Usually I can find something to talk to anyone about; it’s always been my strength. Whether with newly-immigrated busboys who barely speak English, with an international billionaire CEO, a shy spouse of a business colleague, or with a Prime Minister backstage before a big speech, I can always find something of interest for us to talk about and to make them comfortable and open. But this was beyond my reach. When a person can’t talk about anything but Real Housewives, Twilight, or eyelash extensions, announces that “pretty girls don’t have to work,” refers to my hometown as “um… interesting” and has no idea who Malcolm Gladwell is… I honestly had no words. I couldn’t rescue it and I didn’t want to. I was powerless and passionless and couldn’t wait for the meal to be over. The conversation may actually win the unofficial award of the most vapid of my life, and I do remember that part when I force myself to. But how in the world could I be expected to notice the food when I was concentrating on not jamming a fork into my temple to relieve the pain?
The point of this silly little story is that a good or bad restaurant experience depends on so much more than the food. I’ve returned to Toulouse since and I have loved it despite my miserable first experience. Thankfully it got that opportunity. I know it wasn’t the restaurant’s fault, but bad company will make or break an experience faster than anything else. It doesn’t matter how it rates on every other factor. And that brings me back to why I am so grateful for those amazing epic dinners where the conversation flows as easily as the wine, and you leave knowing more and loving more than you did when you arrived. Sharing plates, sharing stories, opening yourself to new experiences and new senses… that’s what a truly great dinner is all about.
Last night I had another one of these good experiences, and I woke up with a smile, knowing that I felt more at home here in Dallas more than ever before because of it. A group of the most interesting, funny, talented, smart, and kind people that this city has to offer all sat around a table at Marquee Grille in Highland Park Village and toasted to Christmas and every other winter holiday we could think of. We laughed, we shared, we ate and we drank. The Chef dropped by a few times to say hello, and white twinkle lights glittered outside of the windows. I was in love, with my betrothed sitting next to me, with the ambiance, with my pork belly and tuna tartar, and with my friends.
Maybe I am a foodie, but I think I’m more of an experience junkie. Bring on the epic dinners of food, laughter and intellectual conversation, and let’s not waste any more time with people who aren’t lifting us higher and heightening our senses. Because in the end it’s always about the company.
Jayne is new to Dallas and discovering the city with a voracious appetite. You can follow her discoveries @JaynieMarie on Twitter, Foursquare, and Pinterest, and on her website A Moveable Appetency.