Yesterday, my wife and I made a run to the farmer’s market and decided to have lunch afterwards. We’re a bit unusual in that we don’t simply find a nearby drive-thru and grab whatever is available. We look for places that 1) are not chain restaurants, 2) are well rated on Google, Yelp, or Trip Advisor, and 3) appeal to our sense of adventure.
We chose CO, a relatively new restaurant serving Southeast Asian cuisine. We hadn’t been there before so we had no preconceived impressions. Being that it was a beautiful Saturday and just a few minutes after opening, we had the restaurant to ourselves, at least for a few minutes.
The decor was nice, with kind of an upscale diner feel. One wall had several large black and white photos of who our waiter said was the 1960s Bond girl from You Only Live Twice, Akiko Wakabayashi. The photos were stunning and gave the interior a kind of hip feel that would appeal to the younger, more affluent crowd I expect they’re going for.
The food and service were great and we had a nice leisurely lunch before finishing up our shopping run and heading home. It was a nice experience and we will be back to CO.
All of this brings me to the point of this post. We had a wonderful dining experience, but what made is so? First, we had not been there before, so it was a new experience. We both had drinks we hadn’t experienced before and the food, Ann Marie’s Korean Short Rib Banh Mi and my Korean Poke Bowl, were full of fun and interesting flavors.
Second, we learned a few things during our experience. How many people take the time to ask about the photos decorating the wall, much less even notice them? We also took the time to talk to the waiter, who gave us a bit of history about CO and a bit of his own history, as well.
Finally, we enjoyed ourselves. We explored a new menu, met new people, and visited a new restaurant. We took a little time out of our day to have a bit of an adventure and to create new memories. That’s what it’s about for us.
So what are some of my favorite food experiences?
One relatively early experience happened in Blowing Rock, North Carolina nearly twenty years ago. I can’t remember the name of the restaurant; it doesn’t really matter since the restaurant was gone when we returned to the town a few year’s later. I also can’t remember the food, although I do recall that it was very good. What sticks with me is the gentleman playing acoustic guitar for the retaurant’s clientele, who played a beautiful version of John Prine’s Paradise. It was a special moment.
More recently, we had a very personal dining experience in the Bairro Alto neighborhood of Lisbon, Portugal. We visited Flor da Laranja, a wonderful Moroccan restaurant and a true one-person operation (the owner was the cook, waitress and maitre de’). It felt as if we were dining in the owner’s home. Again, the food was great, but what made it special was the intimacy of the dining experience and the service.
Sometimes it’s the atmosphere that makes the memories. On a rainy night in Nazaré, Portugal, we spent an evening at Maria do Mar, a little seafood restaurant and a favorite of Nazaré’s surfing community. The restaurant was full of locals and Maria, the owner, made us feel as if we belonged. There was a karaoke D.J. playing fado and the staff took turns singing their favorite songs. The fun atmosphere turned a rainy night at the beach into a memorable experience.
Finally, just a couple months ago, we sat at a picnic table outside 12 Bones Smokehouse, in Asheville’s River Arts District, and enjoyed a nice meal on a beautiful Summer day. We watched as an eagle soared overhead against a brilliant blue sky. It tied everything together- the food, the location, the beautiful weather and a touch of nature. It was wonderful.
For us, it’s these special moments that make dining an adventure. Those moments can be anywhere. You just have to open your eyes to them.