Dining Out

Photo Jan 02, 10 13 53 PM1/3/18-The Creative Momentum of Communal Tables

Coffee shops have certainly become more than a place to pick up a favorite drink.  They are gathering spots for neighborhood residents and visitors. Each one has a different vibe. A varied venue can feel right on a different day.  Often, they are the place to be solo together.  Many cafes include a communal table which becomes a collective work space even when solo patrons are intensely working on individual projects.

A communal table is most often a long table that can seat 10-20 people.  It often looks like what could have been a dining room table in an oversized old house that would seat several generations of an extended family at holidays.  Just like in homes though, the dining room table becomes much more than a place for eating. School projects got laid out, homework help was found there, important papers got stacked up, and craft projects were assembled.

During this week between Christmas and New Year’s, I imagine the dozen people scattered at this communal table at our own sort of creative household working on projects of our choice, rather than tasks on deadline, because it’s a holiday week. There’s the artist sketching on a clean white pad with a pencil; the slim, grey bearded man with the white coffee mug reading through his notes on a tattered legal pad filled with his handwriting; the bald, bearded young man with the tallest of coffee drinks intensely reading off of his computer screen; the patron with a wool Gatsby newsboy hat keying a calculator maybe paying his monthly bills; the woman with the round glasses and big fur hat, that she never takes off, tinkering with elaborate graphic designs on her screen. The shooosh of the milk steaming machine, the barista calling out orders in the background, the muted conversations of the small groups at adjacent tables, all create a buzz of action.

I wonder if there is an unwritten rule at the long table that it is truly a study table, a quiet table, but I know that is just what happened today.  I’ve had conversations with strangers at a similar table, just not this time. The sturdy, long tables at historic libraries have the same feel. Today is a day for individual progress. It feels like our community of working alone together creates some momentum to keep us each moving forward in our task at hand.  Our intensity is contagious. Even reading a book becomes a mission at this table, a search for insight.    

go to the coffee shop, ironically enough, when I want to leave all the distractions in my apartment behind, when I want to focus on the thing I am doing, whether it is the current book I am reading or the first final draft of an essay.  There are distractions at the coffee shop but they are often of others subtly pushing me along in my work because it just looks like they are getting so much done in their solo time.  I never know if they were just as frustrated with their first draft as I was. But, get up, shake it off, get another coffee and keep going. 

Photo Jan 02, 10 13 47 PM

The best of coffee shops provide a combination of custom beverages, and often, a delicious selection of bakery or meal food. The cafe closest to my apartment is called “Chocolaterian, (www.chocolateriancafe.com ),” a dangerously addictive neighbor. It has become an extension of my personal space. Places like these coffee shops become our living room, a place for collaboration, even if it is simply creating the momentum of working solo together.

Photo Nov 14, 8 25 03 PM

11/14/17-The Right Plate at the Right Time

How nice when unexpected kindness and attention come at just the right time. After working a twelve hour day and knowing I wouldn’t have the energy or ambition to prepare much for dinner when I got back to my apartment, I decided to treat myself to a the neighborhood place

around the corner.  I had stopped there before, since I moved to this neighborhood 3 ½ months ago, but this visit would endear me to their hospitality. Support the restaurants you like, certainly, but, without a doubt, continue to patronize the places that treat solo diners with the welcoming respect as they would provide any other table.

I opened the hefty wooden door to an almost full dining room and would have been fine with a stool at the bar but the dozen seats were already full. The hostess came forward with a menu and when I signified, “one” with my index finger, she led me toward a comfy, small table tucked against a wall. It didn’t even occur to me until later that she did not use one of my least favorite restaurant greetings, “Just one?”

As I began to skim the menu, the server promptly arrived, and in a surprising but warm way, had leaned forward and made eye contact even before I noticed her there. When I glanced up, she smiled and said “Good evening.” I requested a pint of Spaten Oktoberfest, Munich’s gift to the beer world, an even bigger treat since it was on tap. I told her I had just worked a hectic, exhausting day. She quickly returned with the pint and took my order for fish tacos.  “Good choice,” she responded. When my food arrived, she even seemed surprised at how quickly; she said the kitchen knew I was hungry. The plate of perch tacos was delicious, just the right kind of food for a late dinner, satisfying but not too heavy.

She checked back after a few bites, as should be routine for any good server, but I have noticed this step is often skipped at tables for one. When I had finished dinner, she returned and asked about dessert. It was tempting since they serve treats from a wonderful local bakery.  I declined but said, “I do want to tell you how much I appreciated your excellent service.” She sincerely said she appreciated that I noticed because she “has been at this a long time.”

“I know,” I said. “I can tell. I’ve worked in this business a long time too. You’re good at what you do.” I continued to tell her about the blog I recently started about eating and cooking solo. She said she had eaten by herself earlier that day on her way to work. 

I assured her I would return soon.  I left her a generous tip for her kindness.  I have long thought that a server who treats a table of one with warmth will often receive a larger tip than they might receive from a routine table of two. If you have found places like Alchemy Café, here in Madison, WI, http://www.alchemycafe.net, let them know that solo diners are an important part of their customer base. I’m glad they are my place around the corner. 

Photo Nov 14, 8 24 58 PM

Statistics from a survey in 2015 from Open Table, an online restaurant reservation service, noted a 62% increase in reservations for one in the previous two years. More and more restaurants are recognizing the trend of solo dining as they respond with staff training. Let your favorite dining spots know why they are your favorites. Post reviews on Yelp and similar sites, when you have the chance, to let them know solo diners are an important part of their audience. 





10/25/17-Food Trucks Full of New Flavors

Food trucks have become a frequent often colorful sight not only in the biggest of cities but in medium sized cities as well, especially near places like college campuses. They are a great way for solo diners to expand our horizons at low cost and try specialty flavors that could become favorites.

Food trucks grew out of the long tradition of street vendors hawking food to tourists and commuters on the run. It’s a way for someone who believes they have a winning food idea to try it out without the daunting funds needed to open a restaurant. Food trucks are often a way for budding food entrepreneurs to build a customer base for a possible future restaurant or to expand the reach and visibility of their restaurant.

Because of the obviously limited space in a food truck, the menu will be limited to a few items that can be served quickly. An upside for us eaters is that the specialties need to shine in what is often a very competitive food truck market.

Food truck offerings are generally quite inexpensive so it’s a good way to try flavors you haven’t had before. If it turns out, you are not a fan of Korean barbeque; you’ve only invested $5-10 instead of   the double or triple amount you may have to spend at a restaurant.

They will often feature ethnic specialties and immigrant foods that you might not yet find in a full-fledged restaurant. The Library Mall on the University of Wisconsin campus here in Madison, WI can be lined with up to 20 food trucks offering everything from Korean bulgogi tacos to Afghani kebobs, to Thai noodles to Jamaican jerk chicken and rice. One of my favorites makes Venezuelan empanadas, pastry pockets, filled with plantains, black beans and garlic and topped with cilantro salsa.

Food trucks are licensed and inspected by Health Departments just like restaurants. Even though they are compact, they must comply with the standards of food safety and sanitation.

Not only can you grab a quick lunch or snack but consider grabbing a meal for later that evening when you know you are going to be working a long day and likely won’t be preparing much at home. If you purchase something you plan to eat later in the day, ask for the dressing on the side of the salad or the mayo on the side of the sandwich so it will keep better.

You can do a web search for the food trucks and their locations and hours in your area.  They will often be at a specific location, often during the busy lunch hour, sometimes on specific days of the week. Food truck menus are often reviewed on apps like Yelp. As with any reviews online, don’t over-rely on them. They are often full of people who over complain and stacked with friends who might over compliment, but they are a good starting point. 

After you find one or several food trucks that have menus you enjoy, sign up for their Instagram or Facebook page. They will often post their special menus or special events where they will be selling. Often, neighborhood fairs and art or music festivals will have rows of food carts as the featured vendors. You will also be the first to know when you have helped that exciting new food take the next step in expanding their business and their menus.

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