It’s not that I’m opposed to the outside. I just don’t want to eat there.
My lack of enthusiasm for all things outdoors is not a popular position, I know. At this time of year, when the days are long and hot, it’s just barbecues, picnics and outdoor brunches, one after the other. Gentle breezes and large open fire pits, what’s not to love you ask? And isn’t it nice to have loved ones in your life who want you to come hang out in their backyard or eat a sandwich on the beach or whatever? But honestly? Can I stay in the kitchen? I prefer to dine where there is no time.
Picnics are the biggest rip-off of them all. Inevitably, there is not enough space on this cover, the ground will be wet, your food will be covered with earth and/or sand. A large insect will crawl on you. Another insect will land on your food, making you wonder if you’re supposed to eat it again now. This dilemma will then immediately be rendered moot, as it will begin to rain.
When you’re a person who wears skirts, getting up and getting comfortable while you’re seated adds an extra level of inconvenience to the picnic experience. If there’s a reason Victorine Meurent is nude in Manet’s famous painting ‘Luncheon on the Grass’, it may be because her dress, crumpled amid the strewn trash of lunch, was impossible to manage during the meal. She looks at the viewer with an expression I’ve worn at every picnic I’ve attended, a weary look that says, “We have restaurants, don’t we? Nearby, another woman, scantily clad, stands in a stream, presumably trying to brush off a mustard stain before it settles. Critics have attempted for more than 150 years to interpret the meaning of Manet’s iconic work. I think it’s, “Picnics are stupid.”
A better option, though still unappealing, is barbecue. Any fire situation outside at least holds the promise of my favorite kind of food – burnt stuff. My love of all things charred, blackened, browned, and otherwise immolated runs deep. The fact that barbecues often come with a high probability of beer is also excellent. What I don’t like, however, is standing with smoke in my eyes, hair and clothes as unpredictable winds blow ash in my direction. Have you ever been to a bonfire once in your life? Do you feel now forever a bit like this fire? Was the experience of drinking from a jar worth all the beach gnat bites you got in the process?
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Then there’s the coffee conundrum. I am truly grateful that outdoor dining has helped so many talented and hardworking people in the restaurant industry stay afloat during the pandemic. I’m thankful that the restaurant dining experience didn’t have to go away completely. I am also very happy to be able to return to my favorite restaurants now.
Ideally al fresco, you’re somewhere on a busy boulevard, perched at a small marble table that certainly doesn’t wobble on an uneven sidewalk. You sip coffee or wine, depending on the time of day. You eat spectacular bread while watching the most intriguing members of the demimonde walk around. In reality – car alarms, jackhammers, helicopters, walking spitters.
My opposition to the “restaurant, but outdoor” model comes from the fact that I live in New York. Maybe if I was hidden in a quaint little street in Alfama, that would be a different story. But al fresco here rarely means relaxation, and never a reasonable decibel level. A few weeks ago, I was out with some friends in Chelsea, just in time for a traffic protest on the same corner as our restaurant. While we were eating, a friend of a member of our group passed by on his way home from the gym. This led to an awkward ten minutes of sidewalk banter, during which the rest of us weren’t sure what to say and whether to continue with the meal. It’s a plot point in at least two uncomfortable episodes of “Sex and the City,” and that doesn’t even include the one where Carrie fell into the lake at the Central Park Boathouse restaurant. That day with my friends at brunch, I couldn’t help but wonder how I had managed to spend way too much money for the privilege of eating cold French toast when a crowd of strangers was screaming.
There are a few other souls of my kind. In 2015, Kelly O’Laughlin took umbrage on her blog A Highly Sensitive Person’s Life, blasting why her co-workers insisted on going out to eat “Even when it was 90 degrees and humid…why sit outside,” she asked, ” sweat in a cloud of bees, when you don’t have to?” Why indeed? There’s a Buzzfeed list of “16 Reasons Eating Out at Restaurants Is Never Fun.” Just because it’s Buzzfeed doesn’t mean it’s wrong to say “the world’s worst restaurants…have outdoor tables.” How many times in the restaurant business is a so-called view an excuse to serve substandard food? I have been to Niagara Falls, and I can confirm. And writing in the culinary classic ‘Home Cooking’, the late Laurie Colwin said ‘no sane person’ prefers to dine al fresco. While I am not questioning the sanity of the millions who believe the outdoors is a natural flavor enhancer, my side in the discourse remains firmly on the in side. This is where the air conditioning and the benches are.
I love my friends and family enough to know that I will always continue to brave outside food with them. It’s a small price to pay – I’d rather hunt mosquitoes in good company than enjoy climate control alone. Still, the fact that there is a Guardian article on “How to enjoy eating out: A guide to avoiding wasps, sand and hot mayonnaise” says a lot to me. Here’s a thought – you’ve never seen an article on how to avoid the perils of eating indoors between four walls and a roof. That’s the beauty of it. I know it’s good there. But maybe once in a while this summer, can I persuade you to take inspiration from “Hamilton” and find myself inside?
On the inside?
Might as well make pastry