The secret power of restaurants

I took my friend Charles for his birthday to dinner at the Candle Cafe, one of the finest restaurants in this or any other city. Our conversation ranged widely, as it usually does. And then there came an odd moment toward the end of the meal, when we both realized that we were simultaneously and unwittingly listening to the strange story being told by a woman at the next table, about the time she had wrapped some sort of exotic headgear around her head.

The odd thing about this event was that neither of us was even slightly interested in her story, and until that moment none of the conversation from other tables had penetrated into the little world of ours.

I took the opportunity to tell Charles my long-standing theory about the secret power of restaurants.

Why do we go to restaurants? Yes, I know, we go there to eat. But we can also eat at home, with less expense and greater convenience. We go for company, but of course we can don’t need a restaurant in order to spend time with our friends. By the way, you have probably noticed that people rarely go to restaurants on their own. It’s generally something people do when they want to have a conversation with others.

So why go into an often crowded and noisy place, filled with strangers in close quarters, in order to pay far more for food than it would cost you to simply buy it at the market, invite your friends over, and eat in the comfort of your own home?

I think it’s precisely because of the phenomenon we witnessed when that woman described her turban wrap, except that in that moment something had gone terribly wrong – we had inadvertently caught a glimpse into the secret workings of a process that is supposed to remain unseen. Like in one of those stories by authors like Philip K. Dick where a woman discovers that those strange voices she’s been hearing actually belong to an artist and his model, and that she herself is but an image in an oil painting, or in which the hero realizes that the entire universe he lives in is contained in that odd little glass bottle sitting on his dining room table. I could go on, but you get the idea.

I think we’re not supposed to realize the hidden mechanism that makes restaurants so compelling, but I’m going to break the code and tell you.

My theory is that we go to restaurants because the constant chatter of strangers around us, which we consciously tune out, is actually continually infusing us with a subliminal stream of ideas, topics to discuss, words and phrases to use, imagery to invoke when making our next observation.

In other words, the atmosphere in a restaurant contains a built-in mechanism to give us the illusion that we are smarter, more clever, more interesting. And our dinner partner is transformed in the same flattering way.

Sure beats watching TV, doesn’t it?

4 thoughts on “The secret power of restaurants”

  1. I like this idea–the restaurant as a parallel to the internet. Sitting in the room gives you a web of contacts to unexpected ideas.
    I also like restaurants because they’re formal enough to stage conversation as an important part of what’s supposed to happen. You pay for a meal but also for an hour or so devoted to conversation that’s under some pressure to be good.

  2. The eavesdropping part is certainly true, and as a bilingual couple, my wife and I loved to dine out for another reason: more likely than not, we could understand our neighbor tables’ conversations but not the other way around. This gave us a certain sense of superiority (more than just illusion).

    A empirical evidence for this: we certain feel less thrilled when the neighbor tables also speak our language. (And we usually try to avoid that when selecting tables.)

    A more down to earth reason for my wife to dine out is very simple: it is the only chance that she could get my undivided attention to her monologue.

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