Restau­rants value their reg­u­lar pa­trons

The Buffalo News - - TASTE -

And it’s not just sex and sleep that change as you age. It’s supper.

A large part of that, yes, con­cerns your phys­i­cal evo­lu­tion. But a larger part con­cerns your spir­i­tual one. Your ap­petite ma­tures, in terms of both the food and the mood you crave. Vir­gin sen­sa­tions are less im­por­tant; know­ing that you’ll be able to hear and re­ally talk with your table­mates, more. If hav­ing that re­as­sur­ance means pa­tron­iz­ing the same restau­rant over and over, so be it. A roasted chicken in the hand is worth two in the bush.

What you want from restau­rants, it turns out, is a proxy for what you want from love and from life. None of th­ese is con­stant. All re­flect the arc that you’ve trav­eled, the peace that you have or haven’t made. When I was 34, I wanted bling, be­cause it per­suaded me that I was spe­cial. When I was 44, I wanted bli­nis, be­cause they made me feel so­phis­ti­cated. At 54, I just want mar­ti­nis, be­cause I’m cer­tain of what’s in them and of what that po­tion can do: blunt the day and pol­ish the night.

I’m in good com­pany, by which I mean that most peo­ple who are about my age or older don’t have the same re­la­tion­ships with restau­rants that they did decades ago. I know be­cause I’m al­ways ask­ing them, and what they say is fa­mil­iar: They no longer sprint to the next shim­mer­ing fron­tier. They won’t suf­fer stools with no lum­bar sup­port. They keep their smart­phone flash­lights at the ready, in case the same dim­ness that’s such a kind­ness to wrin­kles ren­ders those let­ters on the menu – when did they get so tiny? – il­leg­i­ble.

“There def­i­nitely used to be sev­eral fac­tors in choos­ing where I wanted to eat, but all of them pale now in com­par­i­son to quiet,” said Mo Rocca, the ac­tor, TV jour­nal­ist and host of the CBS News pod­cast “Mo­bit­u­ar­ies.” He proudly turned 50 two months ago. “I have no prob­lem say­ing that I’d rather eat at a place that’s more like the li­brary,” he told me. “In fact, if the li­brary opened a restau­rant, I’d be first in line.”

Loud is no longer ex­cit­ing. Trendy is over­rated. “In my 20s, I’d go some­place be­cause it was new or ‘fancy,’ ” said my friend San­dra Bern­hard, the co­me­dian and host of “Sandy­land” on Sir­ius XM ra­dio. She’s 65 now, and said that she needs bet­ter rea­sons than that. She’s not wor­ried about im­press­ing any­body, least of all her­self.

Ina Garten, the wildly pop­u­lar au­thor of the “Bare­foot Contessa” cook­books, told me that she and her hus­band, Jeffrey, “go to the same restau­rant over and over again un­til we just can’t do it any­more, then we go to another restau­rant over and over again un­til we just can’t do it any­more. And that can last two years.” She’s 71, he’s 72 and they weren’t quite this set in their ways decades ago, she said.

Be­cause the cou­ple lives near New York City, ac­quain­tances al­ways ask her about the lat­est, great­est place to eat. “Haven’t a clue!” she said. “Once in awhile we’ll try a hot new restau­rant, and then we’ll go there for two years.”

I sur­veyed sev­eral restau­ra­teurs: They didn’t find her habits un­usual. Older din­ers, they said, are more likely to be reg­u­lars – and the most fre­quent reg­u­lars at that. That’s not just be­cause we tend to have more money. It’s also be­cause we’re tired of be­ing in­vis­i­ble.

If you’re un­der 50 and def­i­nitely if you’re un­der 40, you have yet to ex­pe­ri­ence how you dis­ap­pear over the years, es­pe­cially if you’re not a looker and all the more so if you’re a woman. Sus­tained gazes, ca­sual glances and so­lic­i­tous words go dis­pro­por­tion­ately to the young. To age is to feel as if pieces of you are fall­ing or fad­ing away, so that you’re harder to see.

But not by restau­rants that know and value you. To them you’re lu­mi­nous.

Danny Meyer, the restau­ra­teur and hos­pi­tal­ity guru be­hind Union Square Cafe, Gramercy Tavern, Shake Shack and so much more, brought up some­thing that one of the past cen­tury’s most prom­i­nent tastemak­ers would say. “James Beard fa­mously told peo­ple that when he was stopped in air­ports and asked what his fa­vorite restau­rant was, he an­swered: ‘It’s the same as yours. It’s the one that loves me the most.’ ”

If that’s true to some ex­tent for all epi­cures, Meyer said, it’s all the truer as they age.

He has no­ticed some­thing else, too, a quirk that I think goes hand in hand with older din­ers’ dis­in­cli­na­tion to wait 90 min­utes for a ta­ble at a thronged es­tab­lish­ment, to jos­tle for the host’s at­ten­tion, to sub­mit to cook­ing that’s about a self-con­scious chef’s stren­u­ous in­ven­tive­ness as much as our sim­ple plea­sure.

“The new­fan­gled cock­tail lists, which we all have, are less ex­cit­ing to peo­ple in their 50s, who by that time know what their fa­vorite cock­tail is,” Meyer said. “They don’t mind all the imag­i­na­tive craft cock­tails. But they also want to know that you’ll do a great job of mak­ing their go-to cock­tail.”

We’re not look­ing to trade up. We’re all about com­mit­ment. My own din­ing his­tory, ad­mit­tedly, isn’t nor­mal: For five years, from the ages of 39 to 44, I was the Times’ restau­rant critic, and thus obliged to hur­tle to the fresh­est ar­rivals on the scene. I haven’t ex­punged that from my sys­tem en­tirely. As soon as I got word that I could try the TAK Room, which is the revered chef Thomas Keller’s new ven­ture in Man­hat­tan’s gleam­ing Hud­son Yards de­vel­op­ment, I went there, grate­ful that I could af­ford the splurge. Hav­ing tasted its steak (and its mar­tini), I wish I could af­ford it weekly.

I’m in­creas­ingly like Garten, an un­apolo­getic crea­ture of habit. When I vis­ited my younger brother in the Los An­ge­les area early this month, he asked me where I wanted to eat. There were many un­tried op­tions. But I chose Baran’s 2239, in Her­mosa Beach, be­cause it was less than 15 min­utes from his house, we’d had ter­rific meals there and its own­ers al­ways seemed elated to wel­come us back. I or­dered the smoked-and-fried chicken for the third straight time.

Martha Hoover, 64, who owns a dozen restau­rants in the In­di­anapo­lis area, told me that what distin­guishes older din­ers is that we know, and have ac­cepted, our­selves. “I’m not so con­cerned about cu­rat­ing my iden­tity when I go out to eat,” she said. “I’m very sure about what I want.” Of­ten that’s scram­bled eggs or roasted chicken.

What’s the point of strik­ing gold – a per­fect Cae­sar salad, a server whose ban­ter complements your own, a bear­able din and a sur­viv­able chair – if you’re just go­ing to move on? And why search for the pret­ti­est crowd when the only om­ni­vores who mat­ter are the ones at your ta­ble, cho­sen be­cause they’ve been there be­fore and your con­ver­sa­tion with them, in­fused with a shared his­tory, grows richer and more nour­ish­ing? The cast of char­ac­ters with whom we older din­ers go out to eat doesn’t ro­tate all that much.

“Be­ing with peo­ple I don’t know and feel I have to en­ter­tain – I find that ex­haust­ing,” Garten told me. “But be­ing with peo­ple I love? I have more en­ergy af­ter.”

The chef Jonathan Wax­man, 68, who owns the Man­hat­tan restau­rants Bar­b­uto and Jams, said that we older din­ers are true in our tastes to the et­y­mol­ogy of the word “restau­rant,” which prom­ises to “re­store one’s spirit.”

A close friend my age put it this way: “I used to care about be­ing en­ter­tained, and now be­ing soothed feels more im­por­tant. Life, it turns out, is hard.”

Restau­rants shouldn’t be.

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