January 10, 2003

Live to eat

By: Raul Damas

Raul DamasSocrates said, “Thou shouldst eat to live, not live to eat.”

I say Socrates ended up with Hemlock by misreading the wine list.

Anyone who considers food only for the sake of and to the degree that it nourishes ignores one of modern civilization’s greatest achievements: Restaurants.

Socrates is forgiven, for food was largely a matter of survival in his era; however, this excuse doesn’t apply to the 20 and 30-somethings who constitute my social circle, yet rarely set foot in a decent dining establishment.

This is a naked appeal to my peers: Join me. I’m tired of being the only person under 40 in Washington’s non-chain restaurants. ‘Restaurant Week’ starts next Monday and I’m planning on, once again, spending it dragging my poor girlfriend from one Geritol commercial to another.

Now let me be perfectly clear about the issue, lest the ‘you’re a snob’ e-mails outnumber the ‘nobody cares about the America’s Cup’ e-mails I received on my last column.

The fact that I can always get a dozen friends to join me for cocktails on any night of the week, but have to pull teeth to get three friends to sit down in a restaurant, is simply bewildering. Washington has one of the most vibrant restaurant cultures in America. It’s always full of new restaurants and terrific chefs are constantly arriving or being created.

Unfortunately, Washington is also full of young people more than willing to dispense $60 in one evening for drinks, but ask them to spend half that amount in a restaurant and you’d think you’d invited them to savor their own first-born’s kidney.

Perhaps it’s the chimera of youth that nobody wants to destroy. By staying in the bars, we can all pretend we’re extras in the post-millennial version of St. Elmo’s Fire.

Thank you, no. Besides, they were all Democrats.

Perhaps it’s the bourgeois nature of restaurant dining that turns off my friends. I’m often whisked out of perfectly decent drinking establishments only to find myself in some really neat dive bar.

Newsflash: There is nothing tackier than playing working class, especially when one arrives to the playground in a BMW. Discount beer does not a man of the people make.

I admit that I am biased towards restaurants as a major component, if not the epicenter, of social life. Mine was that odd Hispanic family that dined out at least as often as it gathered around la mesa.

My father spent the majority of his professional life traveling through foreign countries, an experience that forced him to live on restaurant cuisine. Upon his return home, and following the token, mother-satiating home-cooked meal, it was off to a restaurant.

Thankfully, my parents were never ones to curtail their social activities for the sake of their children’s bedtime hour. As a result, you regularly had three children between the ages of four and eight seated at a restaurant table in Manhattan at 9:30pm on a school night. This was where we gathered as a family.

To this day, when speaking with my father, our initial greeting is always followed by responding to, “Where did you eat last night?”

Yes, that deep-rooted appreciation for restaurant dining has now blossomed into full-blown obsession.

I compulsively read and write reviews for Zagat’s. I follow restaurant openings and chef departures with the passion of a soap opera fan. Most nights my reservation schemes could rival Ike’s D-Day plans.

I am what is annoyingly referred to as a ‘foodie’. I live to eat, not the other way around. But foodies aren’t just interested in food. It’s the place of worship, the restaurant that is just as important as the sacrament.

To me, restaurants are a perfect metaphor for life. They’re not simply about consuming food, but they also display the intricate social and psychological relationships between diner, maitre d’, waiter and chef.

All of life’s paradoxes, conflicts, intricacies and mysteries become refreshingly clear when viewed through the prism of the public dining experience.

There is no single more revelatory experience than restaurant dining with a new acquaintance. Where one chooses to eat, how one likes to sit, what one decides to order, how one treats the server: these are better indicators of a person’s character and background than a DNA test.

The interaction across a restaurant table has a firmness, a finality that few other social occasions provide. Restaurants are the stages upon which life’s little landmark performances take place.

You didn’t land that first ‘real job’ until your father slid the check tray across the table to you. Everyone knows no business deal is worth sealing unless it’s done between the appetizer and entrée courses, with a bottle of wine for each. And everything is ‘just drinks’ until the real first date: dinner in a restaurant.

As I said before, this is all self-serving propaganda. I’m just trying to make my life easier by getting more of the post-Nixon set into my favorite eating establishments. Maybe if we all start showing up, Washington restaurants will keep their kitchens open past nine on a Friday night.