14 March 2009

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in the Restaurant, or, Dirty Laundry and Dining Out Don't Mix

Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor share a tender moment
 in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" (1966)
A funny thing happens when my beloved and I head out for a romantic dinner: we often get seated next to couples who are obviously having a miserable time. The comically bad first date is one common scenario. We still wince to recall the hapless dope at Khao Sarn Cuisine who got snappish with the server upon learning he couldn’t order egg drop soup or General Gau’s chicken at a traditional Thai restaurant. Given his date's cringing embarrassment, we rated the odds of her returning his subsequent calls as vanishingly low.

More pitiable was the couple at Casa Romero who were celebrating years of wedded bliss by loudly calling each other the vilest names I've ever heard uttered in a public place. (There's something about the C-word that just pole-axes the romance and tenderness of an anniversary dinner.) I kept glancing sideways, wondering when the crockery might start flying. The idea of divorce was being broached by the time we gratefully left, to which I thought, “Hmm, maybe not such a bad idea for you two.

On another evening, at the new L’Espalier, a sixtyish man with the mien of an insurance executive prosecuted an excruciating fight with his garishly attractive, thirtyish paramour. Apparently he was remodeling their love nest and accused her of cheating on him with one of his contractors. She protested against what she characterized as insane, jealous delusions. The recriminations, too sordid to detail here, got uglier and louder, though the young woman did a better job of retaining her dignity.

The whole shabby business unfolded and escalated rapidly. In ten minutes, we went from being unwilling but slightly titillated eavesdroppers ("Ha-ha!, Ole Sugar Daddy and His Siliconed Hottie Mistress are having a little tiff") to feeling sad and ashamed for them. I think the tipping point was when we realized that this dinner was her birthday celebration. Or maybe it was just witnessing the bloom go off the rose of their romance -- perhaps once beautiful, now revealed as arid mutual exploitation -- in real time.

I got up and sought out the floor manager, who with the help of three servers deftly relocated us, our wine, and the second course of our tasting menu to another table out of earshot, though not line-of-sight. After a bit more sparring, Miss Decolletage finally stalked out. The old man sat there for another hour, sulking blackly with his entree untouched, knocking back a whole bottle of wine and a few whiskeys by himself. Happy effing birthday.

So, why on earth do people air out their personal lives like so much threadbare, stained underwear in restaurants where strangers can't look away? I have a few theories. One, to certain couples, restaurants afford rare moments of imagined privacy away from children and in-laws and telephones and texting, a seeming oasis for real conversation. Two, lovers let their guard down at the table, lulled by attentive service, warm atmosphere and good food, the illusion of privacy enhanced by a ring of unfamiliar faces. Three, flowing alcohol is often a lubricant, sliding open windows long barred by familial pressures, guilt, connubial obligation, or propriety.

Whatever the reason, you may find yourself dining next to a soap opera you didn’t ask to see and can’t easily tune out. With luck, you'll be at a place like L’Espalier, where a highly polished waitstaff will adroitly swoop in whenever a party of Battling Bickersons threatens to spoil your dinner. But more often, especially during restaurants' increasingly crowded weekend nights, the host simply won't be able to move you to another table. That's something to remember the next time your own conversation in a restaurant turns toward more intimate subjects. Chances are your neighbors are getting an earful of your private drama, and would really rather not.