Off Menu: Hospitality is a shared experience

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When our young son was 2, he had such a horrible asthmatic episode that he spent four nights in the hospital while doctors tried to diagnose him. Watching my baby suffering and scared and not being able to comfort him was the absolute most horrifying experience of my life.

I would spend each day in this hospital room, and Andrew would spend every night there. On one particularly bad day of the several bad days, our son was medicated so the doctors could scan his small body. He fought the medication, wiggling in the scanning machine, as I held him down.

Briana VolkThe entire experience was both tiring and deflating. As he finally slept that evening, Andrew insisted I go home and relax. I relented and started to drive down the street to relieve our sitter, but found myself steering the car to our local neighborhood restaurant instead. 

I realized that I needed to breathe. 

There is something incredibly special about a bar or restaurant that allows you the space for a moment of solace after a long day. As I sat there, sipping a beer and attempting to shed the weight of the previous days, the owner of the restaurant came over to chat.

He knew where I’d been and asked if I had eaten yet. With everything else going on, food was the last thought on my mind. Within minutes there was a plate of food set in front of me. Those first bites were heaven. Once he placed the food in front of me and refilled my glass, the owner wordlessly disappeared to deliver a meal to my husband at the hospital, while I sat there and felt the rush of what makes restaurants and bars so great.

At their best, our favorites provide a space for us to celebrate, share moments with friends, and fall in love, but they also provide places for us to find comfort, solace, and community.

All of this was pre-COVID-19, but I often think about how the pandemic has taken so many of those moments from us. All of the necessary changes that restaurants and bars have had to embrace over the past year – take-out, outdoor service, mask requirements – have changed how we experience dining and how restaurants contribute to their community. 

Our children are both vaccinated and just this month we’ve returned to dining indoors for the first time since March 2020. It has been so long that our 5-year-old son does not remember ever dining indoors. Recently friends opened a new restaurant, and joining them for a meal was our first stop. Sitting on long banquettes, hearing the buzz of guests around us – forks clanking on plates, seeing dates cozy up to each other – it all came flooding back as to why restaurants are comforting. 

They are shared spaces in our community. Spaces for celebration, spaces for solace, spaces for grief. A great restaurant opens its doors wanting people to come in and share their day or their night, their joys or their sorrows.

I feel sadness for the places we have lost over the last two years, for the empty dining rooms and bar tops. But as we look around, we can see life coming back all around Portland. The feeling of community and shared experiences is coming back. 

It has always been my favorite thing about dining out, and I can’t wait to see everyone out again.

Briana Volk is the co-owner of Portland Hunt + Alpine Club. She has written two cookbooks and writes about food, hospitality, parenting, and baseball. She lives in Portland with her partner Andrew and two kids, and can be reached at [email protected].