Good meals in crammed restaurants

dining outIn my book, there’s no better way to hang out with friends than at a restaurant over a meal where the focus is on talking, laughing and catching up with each other, rather than cooking, serving and cleaning up your own kitchen.

But how enjoyable the evening will be depends on one, very important factor: the restaurant itself.

Hopefully, no one has to enter a restaurant through its kitchen anymore. Believe me, I’ve seen more restaurant kitchens than I care to admit (Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, of all places, was one of them.) Half the time, once you went through the kitchen you lost your appetite.

Today, thankfully, the front door (or at least a side door) is open to all of us, yet problems await inside.

If you’re meeting your friends for a drink before dinner forget sitting at the bar – it’s still too high. If you’re lucky, there are a couple of tables in the cocktail lounge that are available.

When it’s time to be seated in the dining room, expect the tables and chairs to be crammed together. And that the host will seat your party in the back, which means diners already seated will have to stand, slide their chair out of the way to make room for you to get through. Or, your wheelchair will just barely fit between the tables but you’ll snag the purses, coats, umbrellas and other items hanging off the back of their chairs.

Most diners will be gracious about making way, but there will always be a few who don’t appreciate the disruption. Ignore them; it’s not your fault.  Better think twice, though, about visiting the rest room during the meal because if you go, the path will again have to be forged. So, skip that glass of wine you were looking forward to. Pass on coffee, tea or another beer at the end of the meal. And ignore that tall glass of ice water perched in front of you.

Harder to ignore are the waiters and other staff who bump into your wheels throughout the meal. A slight bump annoys; a forceful one can send a fork spiraling out of your hand. (Just pray they aren’t holding trays above your head.) And don’t expect an apology or a promise to be more careful the next time they pass through. More than likely they think you’re in their way.

Still the food, the company and the friendly chatter trump these mishaps that most wheelies put up with in restaurants. And there have been improvements not legislated by ADA: I’ve noticed it’s been a very long time since a waiter asked my companion, “what does she want to order?” Now I’m asked directly, though the waiter never puts the check in front of me, even if I’m at a table full of tweens. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never had a 12-year-old treat me to dinner.

I guess some things just take longer to change.

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