As I sit at the dining table that is also my desk, considering what I can unearth from the nearby freezer to serve for dinner (on this very table), I have been indulging in a persistent daydream.
I’m in a dimly lit steakhouse with a crowd of fellow diners around me, their voices and the clinks of glassware harmonizing into a convivial hum, no masks to be seen or six feet of social distance observed. There’s jazz playing softly in the background, or maybe a piano player – yes, that’s it! – and I’m wearing red lipstick from a tube that’s currently gathering dust in the bathroom cabinet.
It’s the kind of place where the waiter prepares things tableside, like mixing a Manhattan so cold a layer of ice floats on its surface, or tossing a Caesar salad with silver tongs.
I’m not alone in such fantasizing. With the vaccine going into arms, many of us are finally letting ourselves look forward to the end of coronavirus sequestering and a return to normal times. It’s still a long way off, with new variants of the virus emerging and worry about distribution of the vaccine. But for now, there’s enough of a glimmer of hope on the horizon that we are daydreaming about what it might be like on the other side – and many of these fantasies, it seems, center on dining out again.
Rachael Narins, a cooking instructor in Los Angeles, has been conjuring up the image of a buffet of Indian food stretching before her. “Sometimes, the idea of the abundance of a buffet can be overwhelming, but now I think that would be just the dream,” she says.
She imagines piles of pillowy idli bread and pans of fish curry with noodles, dishes she wouldn’t make herself that she has missed in these seemingly endless months of cooking at home. “You pick anything you want – you don’t have to cook it, order it, wait two hours or pay a delivery fee – you just take a plate and step up.”
Of course, many people haven’t been able to remain at home, with jobs that require them to be out in the world. And some have dined in restaurants; those eateries that still offer indoor dining are operating under various constraints of diminished capacity and mask-wearing.
Our fantasies, though, are of the restaurant experience returned to normal. Some people are even craving things that had previously seemed unappealing: Crowds, noise, wait times for a table. As a caterer I recently interviewed said wistfully, “I just want someone to spill a beer on me.”
Channing Pejic, a fundraiser for a trade association in Washington, D.C., craves the din. “I miss being grumpy that the person at the next table is talking too loud,” he says. He understands the restrictions that restaurants have in place now, including limiting party sizes and requiring reservations. But he sometimes thinks about things that used to seem commonplace: pulling up a chair for a friend who joined the party late, or crossing the dining room to greet another table.
In Narins’ fantasy about the buffet, she’s on her lunch hour and having to rush a bit to get errands done, a feeling that used to bother her. “I miss having places to be,” she says.
Some of these post-COVID-19 dining dreams are about the food: The stuff we don’t make at home because we don’t have the skills or ingredients or patience. But mostly it’s about the ritual of it all, and the other humans with whom we share space. It’s the other-people-ness of the dining experience.
And in some of our post-COVID-19 fantasies, we are not ourselves. For instance, I’m not normally a fancy-steakhouse person, and I certainly don’t dine like a modern-day oil baron. I typically like cozy-casual neighborhood places, and a pricey slab of beef with a vat of bearnaise sauce isn’t my usual jam.
Vanessa Santos, too, doesn’t recognize herself in her post-COVID-19 imaginings. Normally, the publicist from Bethesda hates crowds. Concerts make her nervous, and she and her husband often make reservations for 4 p.m. to avoid the crush that so often happens in trendy, close-packed restaurants. “I love privacy, and I like literal elbow room,” she says.
But recently, she spied an old flyer for a salsa-dancing night at Cuba Libre, a rum bar and restaurant in Chinatown, and something clicked. It suddenly occurred to her that she wanted a rum drink, and plantain chips, and to lose herself on a sweaty, packed dance floor.
“I’m thinking, ‘I just want rum, and I do not care how it’s served,’” says Santos, who says she and her husband have never been dancers and that she has “two left feet.” No matter, the fantasy persists.
Often, what we miss about dining out doesn’t make much sense to us. Patrick Nolan, a law student in St. Louis, doesn’t understand exactly why, but he longs for something seemingly mundane: getting and signing his bill at the end of a happy hour or a meal. “It’s totally dumb, and if you had asked me two years ago would I miss this thing, I would be like, ‘no way,’” he says.
He thinks maybe it’s just such a familiar rite – one he’s done hundreds or thousands of times, because he really enjoys dining and drinking out. He fondly recalls the dance: The check arrives, often in a black plastic book; you calculate the tip, then sign.
He laughs thinking about how he sometimes signs the wrong copy. “There’s just something about it that’s nice.”
It turns out these daydreams aren’t just distractions. They’re an “emotional bandage” that can temporarily lift your mood, says Gabriele Oettingen, a psychology professor at New York University and the author of “Rethinking Positive Thinking.” She says it’s fine to indulge in these fantasies for a bit, but she cautions that research about daydreams shows that the more we imagine something – losing weight, say, or landing a plum job – the less likely it is that we will take action to get it.
And fantasizing about something that’s out of our control, like your team winning the Super Bowl or the end of the pandemic, can create frustration, she says. Because it could be a while before we get to those packed dining rooms, Oettingen suggests that maybe we also try to daydream about food experiences we can achieve in the near term.
“You could imagine setting a nice table for dinner or trying a new recipe,” she says. “It’s important to find daydreams for your daily life because on those, you can act.”