If you grew up in a small town like me, you know that few experiences compared to the thrill of eating out. Sometimes these were local institutions, but it was the bigger Casual Dining Restaurants that were the real destination. That was going out. These places would define our early view of professionally-made food, of indulgence, even culture.
So what happens when you go back? Does your old favorite still stand the test of time? I actually had the chance to find out recently, returning with my wife to my most beloved special-occasion restaurant from childhood. It was my first visit in over 20 years, and my wife’s first ever. And if you’re anything like us, please be warned: there is a good chance you will make the following 10 mistakes:
1. You’ll forget your body has changed with time
You may have once eaten a whole pizza every time you sat down in those beloved red leather booths. Today, you will feel full after three slices, but force down five as you curse Father Time in confused desperation. Then your stomach will hurt the rest of the weekend.
2. You’ll come hungry
Let’s be real, in this venture you are essentially time-traveling back to your youth. It’s a rare occasion, and you will be damned if you arrive in the past too stuffed to enjoy it. But the delicacy of an aging stomach (see above) is only compounded by hours of groaning and tightening as digestive enzymes churn. Nostalgia will trick you into ordering more than grown-up you should; hunger will trick you into ordering more than anyone should.
3. You’ll bring friends or family
With your family, you envision revitalizing the bond of meals shared long ago; with your friends, you may think you are legitimately putting them on to some delicious, nostalgic bites. Of course you’ll want to share the feeling! But you will only share the tears. And indigestion.
4. You’ll plan on ordering your favorite dish. It has been removed or ruined.
Bam, disappointment right off the bat. The Cajun Clucks you crushed as a youth somehow lacked broad appeal (that happened), or the new guy started adding zucchini to the Hot ‘N’ Spicy Chicken after Chef Sue left (names have NOT been changed for this story). Whether driven by business or by the departure of magicians in the kitchen, your childhood favorite’s changing menu is not like the alternating, seasonal menus of your present hipster spot. Here, the new dish on deck is hardly reliable.
5. You’ll trust the menu photos
I’ve been on the other side of this, doing advertising for a major casual dining restaurant: it is a big, irrationally detailed business making this food look incredible in photos. These menus are designed to hook from the page order to the font to the grease drops on the flame-charred cedar plank. It’s inevitable that the food quality will under-deliver relative to those giant beef glossies. Remember that food never tastes as good as it looks in photos. Except on Instagram.
6. You will order a cocktail
With age, you will have achieved two things that will disappoint you in this moment: the ability to legally order an alcoholic beverage, and to somewhat discern what qualifies as a good one. For the mixed drink dabblers out there, the combination of your current habits and ID-wielding freedom may now lull you into ordering a Summer Peach Tornado or Marina Breeze Margarita. Here, there will be none of the complexity, balance, or nuance you have learned to appreciate through years of disciplined near-alcoholism. You are basically drinking liquid jolly ranchers. And you have only yourself to blame.
7. You’ll order anything with cheese or sauce
There will be too much. It will not be artisinal.
8. You’ll expect an ambience that makes you feel something
In adulthood we have taken a sort of masochistic comfort in dark, crowded dining quarters, with rude servers judging the overpriced orders that we have to make from a rotary phone. But conversely, we just as happily enjoy the warmth of the simple, classic diner, where the waitresses wear aprons and call you “honey” and when you order turkey bacon they bring you turkey and bacon. But in your childhood favorite restaurant, you will find neither conceited novelty nor down-home sincerity. You will certainly find folksiness. But it will be a soulless, gimmicky shell. And that will be a bummer.
9. You’ll get judgy
Maybe by this point you’ve had your unrealistic expectations unmet, and ordered the wrong thing anyway, and you start to question what Young You was thinking in once elevating this eatery as the pinnacle of culinary excellence. You may even marvel, “Can you believe I used to…” such and such, or worse, be so bold as to look around and question your fellow patrons who “still” exoticize the place you are so ready to take for granted. But you’re wrong to do any of these. It’s a jack-ass thing to do to strangers, and it’s unfair to yourself. But it’s also an incomplete way to think about food. Which brings us to number 10.
10. You’ll discount context
Played out as the notion may be, the algebra of emotion, background, and immediate situation all impact how we experience and enjoy food. Young You was unwittingly enjoying your Slamburger and fries with a side of Post-Soccer Win, the same way Adult You takes your bulgogi tacos with a side of It’s-Tuesday-and-I-Haven’t-Quit-Yet Pride. If this thesis sounds unsupported to you, I encourage you to take a trip to your favorite restaurant from just four or five years ago. I imagine you’ll find that even if the food is still enjoyable, the emotional charge will have vastly changed, just from the shift in your life circumstances. Similarly, you will never be able to recreate your childhood context returning to your favorite childhood restaurant. This is the fundamental obstacle to enjoying a nostalgic gem on the same level you once did.
So is all hope lost?
Not at all. Instead of chasing the emotions of childhood, look at what you were trying to achieve from your favorite restaurant back then. Young You was looking for food that was bigger and better vs. the baseline of home, cafeteria, fast food, and small local spots. For Adult You, “bigger” has been redefined (as pain), and well…your baseline has been irrevocably improved. But your favorite childhood restaurant will still satisfy two adolescent needs that have endured into adulthood: the need to explore endless options, and to indulge in the over-the-top.
The way to get it: order starters and apps.
In investment terms, you are minimizing risk through diversification. With this small, shared, non-committal approach, you’ll find a safe space to order the bizarre and dangerous in responsible portions. Stuff with names like Loaded Gaucho Samosas or Pepperjack Jerk Chicken Eggrolls. In event of failure, these are easy and guilt-free to bail on. Or they arrive flanked with incredible dips and sauces that mask and salvage. On the other hand, in miniature, a winning dish will be hard to overdo and wreak havoc on your G.I.
Now, is it the same as getting the same chicken fried steak prepared the same way you always did on the way home from your grandmother’s house every Mother’s Day growing up? No. Inevitably it will never live up to that pristinely-preserved memory. But what those meals were really doing for us then was about more than serving the best (and only) deep-fried pickle sliders we’d ever had. They were about broadening our horizons – expanding our idea of what and where food could be enjoyed, and celebrating that expansion. What better a way to indulge that childhood feeling than to approach an old favorite from our expanded, adult perspectives and find it just as vast, exciting, and forbidden as it was all those years ago.
But, I mean, yes, absolutely bring a bottle of Tums. Just in case.