In a city like New York, where residents, visitors and tourists alike eat meals, snacks, and drinks out at restaurants daily, it’s easy to identify what why we all rush out to come in and eat.
Uniquely in New York City, apartment kitchens lie fallow or are converted to bathrooms. Ovens are used to store towels. Diners go out to restaurants to eat, yes, but more to actually relax, unwind, connect with others, and gain a sense of community.
As the founder and owner of Ellary’s Greens, a cozy Greenwich Village restaurant, I’m fascinated each day by my encounters with the different types of restaurant-lovers who populate the most passionate and competitive food mecca in the world. Being in business for a few years, I have learned first-hand that there are six different types of NYC foodies, and each tells us about the myriad reasons why we go out to eat in the first place.
- This first type, who has online ordering programmed in their “favorites” bar on their computers and might be working late at home or the office, presses the intercom button to simply say, “Just leave it downstairs; I’ll get it later,” declining a side order of human contact with their dinner, sandwich, salad or smoothie.
- Also known as, “Come on up!”—This type doesn’t mind adding just a bit of personal interaction to his or her dining experience as long as delivery is willing to climb stairs.
- “I’d like to place an order for take-out” is the call-in diner who might be scoping us out and evaluating us for a future visit when she picks up her meal. Though the guest is placing an order to go, she is also engaging in a kind of culinary speed date, thinking to herself: “Is this a place I’d go on a Friday night? Is this a restaurant I’d be happy taking mom on Mother’s Day? Can I show up here post work-out in my yoga clothes?”
- Our fourth type is the most intriguing to me: the patron who walks into the restaurant to place an order to go and waits for 15 to 20 minutes as his meal is being prepared. It’s clear this type craves some human company, but he might feel a little insecure about eating alone. These are our most convertible guests; they are looking to see what we do, how we do it, and if they feel welcome.
- The “table for two, please” is trying the place out after reading a good review, hearing a recommendation from a friend, or just fancying the restaurant menu or décor. If all goes well with his dining experience, this diner is convertible into our most prized guest type, also known as. . .
- The regular, who can visit a restaurant multiple times a day, effectively using it as her own kitchen, dining room, and sometime even a freelance office. As the proprietor, I get to know our regulars quite well; I even consult them about major changes to the restaurant menu or décor. These guests are family to us; we know them and the details of their lives that bubble to the surface to join our own over the days, weeks, months, and the many meals we share together.
The psychological benefits of families sharing meals have long been documented. An article in The Atlantic last year explained that the average American eats one in every five meals in his or her car, and that the majority of American families report eating a single meal together less than five days a week.
We go to restaurants for much more than just delicious food. We go for the connection.
What’s been explored perhaps less frequently are the social and psychological mechanisms at work when we order food for delivery or choose to visit a restaurant. We go to restaurants for much more than just delicious food. We go for the connection, the experience of being tended to, the dramatic theater of food presentation, and the comforts of participating in a shared social ritual. How then might our six NYC restaurant-goers learn to eat better, not just from a nutritional perspective, but from a psychological one as well?
In her book Eating Together: Food, Friendship and Inequality, Alice P. Julier suggests that eating together and dining out can have outsized effects on people’s views about race, gender, socioeconomics, and inequality. A beautifully prepared meal is an expression of love; and empathy will always find its way onto the ingredients list.
A beautifully prepared meal is an expression of love.
Dining together puts the human element back on the menu and forces us to think more about the value of what we put in our bodies, and we are reminded of the entire chain of food harvesting, preparation, and service. And it surely beats standing alone and eating a yogurt in your kitchen with the refrigerator door propped open. Eating out forces you to sit, to slow down, to pace your meal as the food comes out, and it allows you to interact and connect, something our brains need.
Ours is increasingly a culture of convenience and isolation. But hyper-convenience, web connectivity, and independence come at a price, and often that cost is personal interaction. The health benefits of human connection are proven. It stands to reason that engaging with the restaurant team of greeters, servers, managers, bus boys, and even other guests, or simply spending some time lingering in a restaurant or café, does more than just refresh us; it sustains us. Restaurant-going makes us sit up and pay attention. It connects customers to the ritual of food-making and meal presentation in ancient, primal ways. Good food, with excellent service, delivered in a pleasant setting, is more than just good for nutritional and physical health—it’s good for the soul and it feeds our most basic needs for connection.