This week’s inductee into the “Overrated Hall of Fame” is … outdoor dining.
This past Saturday marked the first warm sunny weekend of the spring in the Washington, D.C. area, which meant that every single ambulatory human in the metro area was either washing his truck, spreading mulch, jogging, walking or riding the rusty hybrid bike they haven’t ridden since last April and won’t ride again until next April.
It also marked the beginning of the highly clichéd, vastly overrated “Let’s go to a restaurant and eat outside” experience. I’ve never understood the appeal of eating outside, unless it’s at a ballgame. If I’m paying good money for restaurant food, I sure as hell don’t want to eat it outside and have to contend with the countless distractions that detract for the main purpose of eating out, which is enjoying the food.
Since the first time some club-wielding Neanderthal figured out that he could better enjoy his mammoth burger in a cave instead of outside in the sun or rain, being inside has been a mark of human progress. For the most part, we sleep inside, fuck inside, and shit inside. (Unless, of course, you are from Appalachia, in which case … some day, some day.) But let a restaurant offer outdoor seating, and people jump at the chance to feel European. I think it’s just a genuine pain in the ass.
First, we have to deal with the elements. For instance, there’s the sun. I guess it’s not enough that my char-grilled double cheeseburger is feeding a nascent tumor in my colon, or that my cheddar bacon fries are clogging up the last three millimeters of passable aorta, or that the four Bass Ales are looking to annihilate the few remaining healthy cells clinging to life in my liver. Now I can work on my melanoma as the midday sun sears the back of my neck. To complete this carcinogenic trifecta, I should schedule a comprehensive set of x-rays while I eat.
But I’ll take the sun over the wind, which leaves me flailing at the placemat, the napkin, the empty sugar packet and the check. The slightest breeze can turn a simple midday nosh into a frantic game of Whack-a-Mole.
Even if the day were completely windless and sunless (as in fat fucking chance), I’ll still have to deal with flies. You know that solitary fly that you occasionally encounter inside a restaurant? His entire extended family is having their reunion at my outdoor table. The entire outdoor meal must be eaten one-handed, because the other is gesticulating like a pissed off Mussolini as I try to shoo away the onslaught of flies whose last stop was atop the pile of shit dropped by some bum behind the restaurant dumpster.
We also have the possibility of rain, which can dampen – literally – the whole eating experience. My brother likes to tell the story of eating lunch in the courtyard of New Orleans’ famed (and terribly overrated) Court of Two Sisters restaurant when it started to drizzle. In just a few seconds, the servers moved every item from every diner’s table inside. The switch took no more than 30 seconds. He was quite impressed with the choreographed actions of the staff. However, being someone whose glass if perpetually half empty (because I’m fucking eating outside and the damn waitress can’t keep my glass refilled), I see nothing but the pain-in-the-ass side of this. If this mid-meal game of musical tables happened while I was eating inside, I’d bitch to the manager, write a letter to the newspaper, call Channel 7 on Your Side, demand a free meal and basically throw one of my of hissy fit. I fail to see the charm.
I guess there is one advantage to all these weather-induced nuisances. Between grasping at wind-blown napkins, fanning myself to keep cool, sweating like John Daly as he walks a par five, shooing away flies like a Tae Bo master and running from table to table to dodge rain drops, I probably burn as many calories as I take in. Still, all that activity is something I’m only interested in if I end up eating at, ohhh … Chez Ironman Competition. If I’m eating at Andre’s Laid Back Bistro, I’d like to skip the aerobicizing.
Even if it weren’t for the nettlesome elements, what’s outside that is so interesting to look at anyway? Most people you pass on a sidewalk are, at least visually, not that conducive to enhancing the dining experience. If it’s warm enough to eat outside, then it’s warm enough to wear flip flops and sandals, which means I am forced to look at an endless parade of toes while I try to eat. Unless those toes belong to Angelina Jolie, I’d rather not see them while I work on my turkey club.
Sitting outside also means I have a steady stream of crotches passing two feet from my face. I can say for certain that I do not want most of the crotches on this planet that close to my face at any time, let alone at lunchtime. In fact, here is a snippet of my inner dialogue the last time I ate outside: “Oh look, here comes a 260-pound woman with a camel toe you could swipe a Mastercard through, and she’s dragging on a leash her four-year-old wall-eyed son, who just ate a half carat booger. And here comes a crud covered old man who hasn’t had a mailing address or hot shower since the Carter Administration. Oh please, let me be downwind from him as he limps by. And is that … could it be … yes, it is! Two bikers zooming down the street in full bike garb, treating me to the visual pleasure of the detailed outline of four no doubt sweaty balls through their skintight biker shorts. Mmm … mmm, that sure makes these raw oysters taste even better!”
With a little luck, maybe those two bikers can get plastered by one of the 600 cars that crawl by while I eat, spewing carcinogenic exhaust fumes in my face as I work on my nitrate stuffed steak and aspartame-laden Diet Coke. “Um … yes, I’m ready to order. Give me the Cancer Melange with a side of biker balls, thank you.”
Even if you removed all these factors, it’s usually uncomfortable to eat outside because of the furniture. Inside there are padded booths and soft chairs. Outside I’m forced to sit on those ass-busting wrought iron grid chairs that leave my legs looking like a pair of waffles. My shins and ankles end up looking like I just played a soccer doubleheader, what with the iron octopus legs those tables always have. The only thing more bruised by the end of the meal is the poor waitress’s back from having to back out the door 27 times because I just had to eat outside.
Eating outside is also supposed to add to the tourist experience. Every waterfront city in the country has that precious area with an abundance of outdoor restaurant seating. Somehow, watching fat tourists with fannie packs dragging whining would-rather-be-at-the-hotel-pool kids to see the “sights” is supposed to enhance the vacation experience. My idea of a pleasant vacation lunch does not include watching miserable families work up lumberjack sweats as they frantically pedal paddleboats in order to maintain that two-mile-per-hour cruising speed that allows them to slalom through a fetid bay filled with dead pigeons, floating condoms and the occasional surfaced corpse.
There is one instance when eating outside is fun, and that is if the main purpose of the outing is drinking. My brother and I, when he was still drinking (fucking quitter), spent many memorable afternoons getting shitfaced on the second deck overlooking Baltimore’s famed Inner Harbor, making fun of tourists, locals, street performers, and … everything else. But even serious drinking is really better left inside. That’s why bars are usually dark.
Sure, beer commercials and movies show bar denizens drinking and laughing it up and having all kinds of bigtime fun, but in a real bar, you’re supposed to wallow in your misery, obsessing on abject regret, mulling lost opportunities, ruing misspent youth, loathing yourself for wasting your talent, dreading a future darkened by an absence of hope and suffering with the awareness that what lies ahead is an endless succession of dreary days, on after another, each one a little worse than the next and seamless string of blackness …
But I’ll still take that over another set of biker balls in my face.
Ned Bitters is, in fact, overrated. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.