Outdoor Dining Is Actually the Worst
Welcome to Sounding Off, where writers have the chance to express their, ahem, unique thoughts on the food & drink world. These opinions belong to the writer, not Tasting Table.
In the summer, my pancakes are strewn with straight-from-the farm blueberries, and soft-serve ice cream cones often stand in for lunch. Otherwise, I loathe the season of mascara-melting humidity and slapping flip-flops. A 15-minute walk in the heat and I'm curled up in the fetal position with a migraine and Tylenol. Winnowing a hectic week down from five days of work to four so aficionados of the beach can spend their Fridays reveling in the sand that I deem a mild form of torture equally agitates me. But there's an even bigger reason I long for October to arrive quickly: outdoor dining.
This is the time of year when—except for the thunderstorm I surreptitiously yearn for—all my dinner dates clamor to eat and imbibe outdoors, which usually translates to a few tables hastily assembled on a patch of sidewalk in front of or to the side of a restaurant.
I lived in New York for most of my life, and while I realized my cooped-up neighbors were craving doses of fresh air alongside their hanger steaks, I've never understood why so many famished customers tolerate waiting ("we can seat you right now inside") only to devour their meals amid honking taxis, wailing children gliding by in strollers and the possibility of running into someone with a penchant for small talk making a well-deserved glass of rosé grow lukewarm with each rambling sentence. There are no homey pots of geraniums, no twinkling lights festooning lemon trees. People-watching revolves around folks shouting obscenities into their cell phones or trudging home with plastic dry cleaning bags.
Post-dusk, the sidewalk setup becomes more tolerable, because nostalgia buoys the occasion. Use your imagination, and you're once again on a suburban stoop, staying up well past your bedtime to catch lightning bugs and savor cherry Italian ice. Daytime also makes me think of the past, when I lived in fear of passing the wisteria bush in our driveway because of the bees that constantly flocked to its purple blooms. Now, it's the entourage of these buzzing insects hovering over my water glass that frightens. What exactly is pleasant about trying to push away menacing thoughts of an impending EpiPen while a hornet circles my roast chicken—particularly when I'm already frustrated by the glaring sun a lackluster umbrella does little to alleviate?
My preference for eating indoors also stems from a primal need to connect—with my companions, yes, but also the restaurant's staff and surroundings. I enjoy seeing a bartender whip up my Negroni and guessing that the bowl of tagliatelle getting primped with red chile flakes in the open kitchen is mine. Relegated to a slab of concrete with a bunch of strangers squeezed together you don't hear the barspoon gracefully clinking against the rocks glass, only the deafening voices of those who also abide by a trite summer script that reads, "Look at me; I'm eating a burger outside, and nothing else matters!"
Since I write quite a bit about the design of restaurants and bars, I know how much thought and effort these architects and interior designers put into eliciting a distinct ambiance that’s rich in detail. That’s why I am seduced by cozy backyard gardens, the ones with babbling ponds and charming, mismatched wrought-iron furniture. When these hard-to-come-by secret oases are discovered, I am happy to linger in them well into the night, mosquitos pecking at my ankles, because there I am cocooned with audible conversation and a memorable setting.
Unfortunately, I’m far more often found on a wobbly sidewalk chair, which demeans that heady experience of roosting in an enchanting garden. During a round of asphalt dining, only when I pop inside to go to the bathroom and see how animated everyone looks chatting over candlelight, cooled by air conditioning and ensconced on plush banquettes do I get to take in the mosaic tile work and funky copper chandeliers that amplify what's on the menu. That's when I wish I could join all of them instead of retreating to my cramped, soulless perch with views of the overflowing trash can.
Come cool weather, the most beloved winter restaurant ritual morphs into thawing out with a dram of whiskey in front of a vintage fireplace. I see the allure of that one.
Alia Akkam is a freelance writer who covers the intersection of food, drink, travel and design. Follow her on Twitter at @aliaakkam.
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