Gastronaut in love

All You Can Eat

All You Can Eat has been slow-coming as of late in part due to over-eating-induced food comas during the holidays, but also for the simple fact that I met someone. Wining and dining take a lot of time and energy, especially when you are as neurotic as I am. And for this endeavor, I’m putting in more time, energy, and thought than ever before.

One of my favorite activities is picking a restaurant or recipe for someone. When people ask, I spend hours researching and talking with them to arrive at to best place for their needs. To understate, I relish this task. Maps, photos, and menu suggestions are usually included in a packet for the individual in need.

And my perfectionism certainly doesn’t ease up when I’m looking for the perfect place to take a date. I enlist friends’ opinions, drag them along for test runs (awkward!), and consider a whole slew of variables and concerns. There are always food allergies and dietary restrictions to take into account. Anorexic? Buffet Palace might be a waste of money. Vegan? Austin Land & Cattle is also a no. You get the idea.

I generally try to avoid vegetarians simply to make my life easier, but have made exceptions in the past when the girl is worth it. Vegans need not apply. I think it has to do with a fundamental difference in philosophy: I like things and they don’t. I consider myself a sensualist in that I want to experience as many tastes as possible. Vegans, in my opinion, view the world in exclusionary parameters based on a belief system that would cause them to starve 100 years ago. It’s just not for me.

Vegan-bashing aside…

There are several qualities I look for in a good date place. The food always has to be good. A place can have the best atmosphere in the world, but if the food sucks, there’s no reason to go. You might as well go to an art gallery for food. You should be well informed of food preferences or allergies. This doesn’t mean that you have to ask – you can simply choose a place that has a little bit of everything.

Note: Vegetarians and vegans are an exception to this rule. If you end up going somewhere fancy, your chances of finding a vegetarian dish, and especially a vegan one, get slimmer and slimmer. I also try to avoid places that are too exotic. Somebody’s father could have beaten them with Cuban food when they were a child. You never know. I try to stick with simple things like American or French food. If they don’t like those, I shouldn’t be seeing them.

Next on the list is atmosphere. I can’t think of a more important qualification – besides food. Everyone has their own preference here; naturally, I believe mine to be superior.

The atmosphere must lend itself to conversation. I like either a sense of seclusion or a sense of being in a room with other people. Reconciling the two is what makes a great restaurant. Crowded places might be better suited for a second date. For a first date, I want to be able to talk to someone, but I want there to be enough noise in the restaurant so that even if we’re not talking, there will still be noise. Live music is too much noise, and it seems too easy to let something else like that carry part of the evening. It’s like absent parenting. For this same reason, I dislike first dates that involve a movie. You are either paying a disservice to the movie by not paying attention or you are ignoring your date. Everything about the date must support your connecting with a person, rather standing in for that connection.

Just like chemistry, atmosphere isn’t something you can force. I tend to avoid places that try to be romantic. If someone were to ask me to Romeo’s on a first date, I don’t think there would be a second. (Their “romantic” lighting was once so romantic that I had to pull out my lighter to read the menu.) I also tend to avoid places that are notorious date spots. Truluck’s always seemed to me like a not-too-spectacular seafood joint where assholes took girls to throw money at them in the hopes of getting laid.

photo / Made Underground Creative Commons licensed: Attribution 2.0 

Organic atmosphere can be attained by effort – it’s just a delicate balance. If anything is being forced down your throat, you will resist. But if an environment allows you to relax, you will be able to be yourself around a new person.

Now that you’ve thought about atmosphere, it’s time to think relatively. Where do you set the bar? If you go too low, you could be going solo next week. Too high and you will be declaring bankruptcy soon and/or not being able to raise it any higher in the future. In my opinion, a perfect date place doesn’t have to be fancy or expensive; however, most of the places I opt for are on the pricey side. They’re not for everyday. This is a special occasion, so go somewhere special. I personally like to mix things up and alternate between fancy places and simple, good food. Driving to get a corn dog can be adventurous and fun.

That’s about it for my prejudices, ego, and anal-retentiveness. Let’s get down to my number one date restaurant.

Chez Nous – I’m biased about this little French bistro. It’s my favorite restaurant in Austin, my home turf. Their small and unpretentious dining room with just enough privacy and chatter is perfect for a first date when you really like the person. I’ve gotten to know a waiter there, and he will sit down and talk about how my date is going when she’s in the bathroom. Little things like that matter. They understand the pace of eating here and know when to leave you alone. It’s also not uncommon for them to give you free dessert drinks if you inspire them.

They don’t take reservations, so expect to get a drink at the bar. I suggest a kir (white wine with crème de cassis). After that, everything is excellent. Hanger steak, fillet, trout, sweetbreads, lamb, duck. Go eat there now.

I went to Chez Nous for the first date and it ended up being the best date that I’ve ever heard of anyone having. A lot more than the restaurant contributed to this, but the Chez Nous definitely helped. We’ve been to several great places since then, and I still have a long list of places that should last me. When I first moved to Austin, I didn’t think there were many good restaurants here. Either I was an idiot (highly possible) or things have drastically improved in the past eight years. Regardless, Austin is an exceptional city for dating. That alone is a good enough excuse to ask someone out.

As far as my own restaurant love-life goes, I’ll keep you posted.