The place I met my husband was a small, intimate sushi restaurant. On that first date, I had to guide him from the freeway to the restaurant, his broken English navigating not just a strange town but also my nervous foreign words.
I still remember him getting out of the car at the restaurant. During the date, I went to the restroom to give myself a “Good job, girl” pep talk. We stayed until they put the chairs on the tables around us. He told me he only understood 60 percent of what I had said that night.
When they closed that small restaurant and moved up to the ritzier side of town, I would still drive by the old location — which is, even years later, still empty — and feel sadness. The restaurant was technically still open, but that location was a cherished puzzle piece in my memory.
When restaurants shut down in the spring COVID-19 blizzard, business owners and staff lost plenty, and, however politicized it became, the community lost bits of itself, too. Restaurants are touchstones for the strength of community, not only in what they feed our stomachs but how they cater to the moments of our lives.
Like many, I haven’t eaten at a restaurant since March. We’ve done our fair amount of takeout, but our restaurants opened back up in phases, with many staying in outdoor-dining mode even if some indoor dining is permitted.
Even those that didn’t have outdoor seating before are constructing tents and patios. I know it’s necessity fueling invention, but I’m more fond of patios with a side of early mornings.
When we made the transition to parents, we didn’t want to give up eating out. Suddenly forced to be up at the crack of dawn with a baby, we shifted from late nights to bleary, coffee-fueled mornings. And as parents, we found an unexpected community by going out.
A brunch locale became our harbor. We requested strong coffees and green chile to shake life into our new parent souls as our baby gurgled at the stone-cold waitress who didn’t quite understand us. We didn’t fit the crowd. There were either gray-haired couples who walked onto the patio with their morning newspapers, or travelers coming to visit the touristic location, with expensive motorcycles to match their leather jackets.
Some of the other customers did double takes at us weary young adults with a baby, but more smiled at us understandingly, with a cheesy grin and a wave to our daughter.
Over time, she grew and would chew on limes and rearrange the sugar packets. We were determined to win over the gruff waitress; we reorganized sugar packets and left decent tips. At some point, when our daughter was sitting on her own, the waitress came over with a clear, ornate plastic plate filled with slices of strawberries and bananas. Our daughter beamed at the waitress, who gave a pursed smile back.
The waitress completely lost her hardness when she saw us lugging the second car seat in carrying our son. She excitedly cooed at the baby and praised my daughter for her new big-sister role. After that, she regularly said, “Eeeiii, they’re getting so big.”
We haven’t been back in what feels like forever. The brunch patio takes a hiatus during the winter, and March was right about when we might have ventured back. We may not be back until next year. I hope that when we go back, she’ll still be happy to be a part of our memories.
— Cassie McClure is a writer, wife/mama/daughter, fan of the Oxford comma, and drinker of tequila. Some of those things relate. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow her on Twitter: @TheCMcClure. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.