Every community, not matter how small, has a coffee shop or restaurant where people gather to see and be seen. In a city there are many places. Portland being a mid size city has more than its share, most of which I tend of avoid. If I don’t want the NSA spying on me, I don’t care to have my neighbors taking note of my activities either.
New Yorkers wouldn’t understand my philosophy. The whole point of lunching out is to be seen. Not only to be seen, but acknowledged, especially by the restaurant staff of swanky restaurants where you’re a regular and who remember your seating preferences and your favorite menu items. As Molly Peterson notes in her essay on the New York lunch bunch, where a person lunches depends not so much upon the quality of the food – that is assumed – but upon the maître d’ “who understands the delicate seesaw of jocular insubordination and obsequiousness.” (“Restaurant Loyalty,” by Holly Peterson, Town&Country, October 2014, pg.128) Though restaurants are public places where people meet not only to socialize but do business, what matters about a restaurant is the feeling of “clubbiness” it provides — the feeling that everyone knows everyone else.
According to Peterson, being seen isn’t about nourishment, it’s about survival. To swim in the social pond you have to be noticed. Otherwise you might drown. In fact, if you’re feeling a little peaky, dining among acquaintances is a tonic. A familiar setting gives a person sense of normalcy and a feeling that despite the current turbulence in one’s life, the moment will pass.
Peterson speculates this feeling of a safe harbor may be the reason why so many New Yorkers frequent familiar places over and over again. Perish the thought that a favorite restaurant should close or a maître d’ of long standing should leave a favorite restaurant. Events of that proportion are likely to send customers in search of therapy. And don’t imagine that New York’s finest dining is really open to everyone. If you’re an outlier trying to get a table be prepared to wait… and wait… and wait. Better yet, bring take-out so you won’t starve to death.