It’s not that I’m opposed to the outdoors. I just don’t want to eat there.
My lack of enthusiasm for all things al fresco is not a popular stance, I know. This time of year, when the days are long and warm, it’s just barbecues and picnics and outside brunches, one right after another. Gentle breezes and big open flame pits, what’s not to love, you ask? And isn’t it nice, to have loved ones in your life who want to you to come over and hang out in their yard or eat a sandwich on the beach or whatever? But honestly? Can I just stay in the kitchen? I prefer to dine where no weather.
Picnics are the biggest scam of all. Inevitably, there’s not enough room on that blanket, the ground is going to be damp, your food will wind up covered in dirt and/or sand. A big bug will crawl on you. Another bug will land on your food, making you question whether you’re supposed to still eat it now. That dilemma will then immediately be rendered irrelevant, because it will start to rain.
When you’re a person who wears skirts, the whole getting up and down and arranging yourself comfortably while you sit adds a whole extra level of inconvenience to the picnic experience. If there’s a reason Victorine Meurent is nude in Manet’s famed painting “Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe,” it may well be because her dress, crumpled amidst the scattered detritus of lunch, was impossible to manage for the duration of the meal. She gazes out at the viewer with an expression I too have worn at every picnic I’ve ever been on, a weary look that says, “We have restaurants, right?” Nearby, another woman, loosely clad, stands in a stream, probably trying to work out a mustard stain before it sets. Critics have tried for over 150 years to interpret the meaning of Manet’s iconic work. I think it’s, “Picnics are dumb.”
A better, if still not appealing, option is the barbecue. Any outdoor fire situation holds at least the promise of my favorite type of food — burnt stuff. My love of all things charred, blackened, browned and otherwise immolated runs deep. The fact that cookouts often come with a high probability of beer is also great. What I don’t enjoy, however, is standing around with smoke getting in my eyes, my hair and my clothes as unpredictable winds hurl ash in my direction. Have you ever once in your life been to a bonfire? Do you now forever smell a little like that fire? Was the experience of drinking out of a jar worth all the beach gnat bites obtained in the process?
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Then there’s the cafe conundrum. I’m truly grateful that outdoor dining has helped so many talented, hardworking people in the restaurant industry stay afloat over the course the pandemic. I’m grateful that the experience of dining out didn’t have to go away completely. I’m also really glad I can go back inside my favorite restaurants now.
In the al fresco ideal, you are on a lively boulevard somewhere, perched at a small marble table that is definitely not wobbling on uneven pavement. You are sipping either coffee or wine, depending on the time of day. You are eating spectacular bread while observing the most intriguing members of the demimonde stroll by. In reality — car alarms, jackhammers, helicopters, walk-by spitters.
My opposition to the “restaurant, but outside” model arises from the fact that I live in New York City. Maybe if I were tucked away on a quaint side street in the Alfama, it’d be a different story. But al fresco here rarely means relaxation, and never a reasonable decibel level. A few weeks ago, I was out with some friends in Chelsea, just in time for a traffic stopping protest on the same corner as our restaurant. While we ate, the friend of one member of our party walked by on his way home from the gym. This led to an awkward ten minutes of sidewalk banter, in which the rest of us were unsure what to say and whether we should go on with the meal. This is a plot point in at least two uncomfortable “Sex and the City” episodes, and that’s not even including the one where Carrie fell into the lake at the Central Park Boathouse restaurant. That day with my friends at brunch, I couldn’t help but wonder how I’d managed to spend way too much money for the privilege of eating cold French toast while a mob of strangers screamed.
There are a few other souls of my kind. Back in 2015, Kelly O’Laughlin took umbrage on her blog A Highly Sensitive Person’s Life, boggling why her colleagues would insist on going outside to eat “Even when it was like 90 degrees and humid…. Why sit outside,” she asked, “sweating in a cloud of bees, when you don’t have to?” Why indeed? There exists a listicle from Buzzfeed of “16 Reasons Eating Outside At Restaurants Is Never Fun.” Just because it’s Buzzfeed doesn’t mean it’s incorrect that “The world’s worst restaurants… have outdoor seating.” How often in the realm of dining is a so-called view an excuse to serve subpar cuisine? I’ve been to Niagara Falls, and I can confirm. And writing in the culinary classic “Home Cooking,” the late Laurie Colwin opined that “no sane person” prefers to dine al fresco. While I don’t question the sanity of the millions of people who believe open air is a natural flavor enhancer, my side in the discourse remains firmly on the in side. That’s where the air conditioning and the banquettes are.
I love my friends and family enough to know I’ll always continue braving outside food with them. It’s a small price to pay — I’d rather wave off mosquitos in good company than enjoy climate control alone. Yet the fact that there’s a Guardian feature on “How to enjoy eating outdoors: a guide to avoiding wasps, sand and warm mayonnaise” pretty much says it all for me. Here’s a thought — you’ve never seen a feature on how to sidestep the perils of dining inside within four walls and a roof. That’s the beauty of it. I know it’s nice out there. But maybe once in a while this summer, can I persuade you to take a cue from “Hamilton,” and meet me inside?
Might as well do some baking
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