Sparkling Isolation – Day 116

A third first date.

Since this quarantine began I have actually gone to three restaurants for an in-person dining experience. Around week thirteen, outdoor dining became possible and I managed to get a reservation for one at a restaurant I have visited quite often in the past. It was a strange experience – mostly good, but also odd with all of the restrictions, masks, etc.

When Illinois entered what they call “Phase 4” and restaurants could open up for indoor dining on a limited basis, I managed to snag a reservation for one at a favorite spots in the city. It just happened that I had a doctor’s appointment in the area that day and figured it would be a convenient experience to bundle those together so that I would not have to take the El into Chicago more than once. It was amazing to be back at one of my favorite spots, but it was the first day restaurants were open to the public in nearly fifteen weeks, so it felt a tiny bit strained.

Both of those were nice experiences, and I suppose you could say they were both me taking myself out on a date – of sorts. I mean, I have an entire brand about “table for one” on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and on my own website. Whenever I eat out alone, I usually post photos with the following hashtags:

#singledining #diningalone #datingmyself #diningsolo #solodining #tableforone #tableforoneplease #takingcareofme #grateful #lifeisgood #alonebutnotlonely

Last night I decided to go out again, this time for a more full-fledged evening out at a restaurant. This was definitely more of a “date night” kind of experience. I picked a higher-end steakhouse and planned for a cocktail, multiple courses, wine pairing, and then a post-prandial cocktail for dessert. I suppose it’s the type of place and experience many people save for “special occasions” but for me, just the idea of finally feeling confident and safe enough to go out into the world and attempt to have a relatively normal experience – that itself is a special occasion.

It’s rather like three incremental steps towards a return to some of what I had before. Step one, a tentative move towards outdoor seating. Step two, a familiar spot but still with windows open and a hybrid indoor/outdoor vibe. Step three, making a reservation and taking myself out on a date as I might have done prior to the pandemic.

How did it feel? Mostly good, although somewhat mixed. I am not going to rush out again anytime soon – both for the purposes of money (it was a pricy meal) and for my personal comfort level. Here are my takeaways – good and bad.

Bad – There were so many people who simply refused to wear masks when not sitting at their tables. I was in the restroom and at the urinal next to me, the guy was not wearing a mask and he was a “talker.” Frankly, I don’t want to chat when I’m at a urinal, especially with a jerk not wearing a mask. When I washed my hands, however, I took the last hand towel. Petty revenge, but it felt nice.

Neutral – I wasn’t put off by these things, but they were a bit odd in this new paradigm for restaurants. The table was totally empty – no flowers, no silverware, no condiments, nothing. They brought a glass of water and silverware, but also brought a tiny container with those minuscule packets of salt and pepper. Since I knew I wasn’t going to eat everything, I needed to pack stuff to take home. They brought the containers to the table with a bag and it was up to me to pack it away myself. I don’t mind that, but it is a change from protocol at this restaurant in the past.

Good – the meal was fabulous, excellent service, and super nice staff. Everyone who worked there was careful about their masks and their own social distancing. For the most part, diners seemed to be respectful of others in both the bar and the dining room. In fact, sitting at the bar after the meal to enjoy a cocktail, it was like a normal bar experience except the seating was spaced in pairs around the bar to create the required distance. Normally, this bar is jammed so it was nice to sit quietly and sip a cocktail without being jabbed in the ribs by pushy people trying to get to the bar.

So, for a third first date, this one was the most successful of the three. I don’t feel like things are back to normal, and I’m smart enough to realize that will never happen – at least not any time soon. But it was a tantalizing taste of feeling nearly normal for the first time in ages.

Today, it’s back to work-from-home again and feeling a bit like a prisoner in my own house. But at least I tasted a bit of freedom for a moment.

It’s only Quarantine if it comes from the Quarante province of France. Otherwise, it’s just Sparkling Isolation.

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