Restaurant quality food is no more than an Uber Eats away, but the experience of restaurant dining goes far beyond the food on your plate.
The COVID-19 shutdown of restaurant dining rooms meant that our homes became the most likely place for us to enjoy a meal and habits we normally might have engaged in — like actually eating at the dining room table — were cast aside for less formal habits.
For many, it has been over a year since dining inside a restaurant, and some still will not feel comfortable dining in-house at a restaurant for several more months. Restaurants are not only for food service; restaurants are a place to receive hospitality, and the art of providing a meal to a guest in a restaurant is something that we can replicate at home to remind us of the joy and pleasure of dining out.
It might not be something you do every night, but it doesn’t take much effort to provide a restaurant ambiance at home. Regardless of ordering takeout or cooking from scratch for your next dinner, try these tips to revive the restaurant feeling at home.
Few things can upset the process of relaxing and enjoying a quality meal than stressing at the last minute.
Remove the element of (unwelcomed) surprise and plan your menu ahead of time.
If you are cooking at home, write out your shopping list and the order of operations for the recipe so you know exactly what you need and how to prepare it. If you are ordering takeout, place your order in advance so that you are not pressed to make a dinnertime decision at the last minute, especially during high-volume times, like the weekends and weeknights between 4 p.m. and 8 p.m.
Create a playlist
You can tell a lot about a restaurant before you look at a menu just by listening to what music is being streamed. Maybe all you hear is the kitchen boombox keeping chefs company, or maybe the dulcet tones of Muzak gently float through the dining room. Create your own vibe with a playlist of tunes that match your meal. Italian? Rat pack is where it’s at. Korean? How about some teeny-bop K-pop? YouTube has lots of options if you ache for the rustling sounds of diners chatting, forks clanking against plates and the voices of servers. Hey, even sports arenas stream audience cheers from games gone by, so be sure to set your own tone via playlists and restaurant din, too.
Set the table
If ever there was a time to iron a tablecloth and roll silverware up in linen napkins, this is it. Set out the table the way your favorite restaurant does: water and wine glasses, real silverware, twinkling candles and a small vase of flowers, plates for bread. Or … don’t! Not every favorite restaurant is a napkin-on-your-lap environment. Maybe it is paper placemats like a diner, or an al fresco park bench, like where you might enjoy your goods from a food truck. Setting can be as important as substance, so create yours accordingly.
Think about service ware
Sometimes the only difference between the spaghetti you make at home and the spaghetti you get at a restaurant is the bowl it is served in. We have all plopped down after a long day, ravaged by hunger, to eat directly from a takeout container (listen, you know we are right about this) the dining experience at home is elevated once you transition to non-plastic utensils and a true plate or bowl to dine from. The vessel food is served in is not merely a trough, but can help to bring aesthetic beauty to the meal and enhance a recipe’s flavor. Next time you make pasta, try serving it in a wide, shallow bowl. Tap into your artistic side when plating up mashed potatoes and vegetables that come on the side of a roast chicken dinner. We eat with our eyes first, so make it look as appealing as possible.
And about the server!
Got kids at home? Stop by the bank one day this week and keep a stash of singles or five-dollar bills at hand. Allow your kids to take your order, bring you a plate of food and play server for the night. (Tip included!) Not only is it a fun way to engage younger kids, but it also teaches that food service work is respectable and necessary work and that tipping is a vital structure within our dining industry.
Course it out
Dining out often means more than just an entree — cocktails, appetizers, main courses and desserts often play into the events of the evening. Coursing out a meal at home allows for variety in the meal and often where you serve it, too. Start with a cocktail and an appetizer in the kitchen, then move into the dining room for the main course. End with a cup of coffee and a dessert in the living room.
No sweatpant zone
As comfortable as soft clothes are for padding around the house day after day, nothing eases us back into the outside world like the re-introduction of buttons and zippers into our apparel. Make your dinner table a no-sweats zone and insist on dressing up. Keep in mind that “dressing up” is relative these days: you can wear that sports coat if you really want to, but a button-down and a pair of jeans is sufficiently dressy for a restaurant-at-home experience.
Deanna Fox is a food and agriculture journalist. www.foxonfood.com @DeannaNFox
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