General 4-15-2005

Dining on Dreams

As a Midwestern restaurateur, he thought he had eating out figured out. But one dinner in Hollywood, and he discovered he had a lot to learn just to avoid getting eaten alive.

Evening Drinks

The first time my wife and I went out to dinner on L.A.’s West Side, I sensed something wrong. I’m a recovering restaurateur—I’ve spent years scanning dining rooms. They hold no mysteries for me. My eyes compulsively flick from table to table, sizing up the status of diners, instinctively measuring their happiness with their experience. Even though I’m out of the business now, I usually sit facing away from the room so I don’t get distracted by service problems I can’t help but notice. Watching a table restlessly flag oblivious servers or stare at the kitchen doors, impatient for their next course, I squirm a little, even though it’s not my job to make everything right anymore.

But this was different. We walked to Pane e Vino, an upscale Italian restaurant not far from our new home, and stepped through the front door to approach the hostess. By reflex, my eyes flicked all over the room, sizing up the state of affairs: a lovely, sedate dining room, lots of expensive clothes, lots of bottles of water on the tables (the baloney-sandwich-eating Indiana kid in me still giggles at the idea of paying for water, but the restaurateur in me relishes selling people Italian tap water for eight bucks a liter).

As I did this, though, I got a sudden jolt: all the people at all those tables lifted their eyes and scanned me back. Just as reflexively, and with just the same finely-tuned appraisal of my status. At first, I didn’t know what to make of it. Even as the owner of a restaurant, I’d never been so thoroughly examined just for walking into a room. I was being measured. Probed. Judged.

I’ve heard women complain about the carnivorous way they evaluate each other in certain social settings—finely dissecting the clothes, the hair, the makeup, the accessories—measuring each other against some nebulous, but nonetheless thoroughly ingrained, standard of beauty established in childhood and updated monthly by Vogue, Cosmo and all those other manipulative glossies. Under the relentless weight of all those eyes, I was suddenly the flummoxed girl who walks into the party to discover that lavender is the new gray and she never got the memo.

In a flash, I understood. Without knowing it, we’d picked an “industry” restaurant. As in the entertainment industry. Which meant that dinner was about much more than plates of food. It was about seeing and being seen. Being seen by certain people dining with certain people.

And seeing. Me.

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