Last summer, my then-87-year-old grandma had the worst restaurant meal of her entire life. I know this because she told me so on the drive home from the restaurant, which I—a food writer—had chosen. My grandma, who I call Oma, didn’t hide her displeasure during the meal, setting everyone at the table on edge and souring the family get-together. Yet I was still surprised to learn that this particular dinner was in fact the very worst. No one contracted food poisoning or had wine spilled on them, Oma just found her salmon inedibly dry, the dining room too loud, and the service inattentive. Oma made her complaints known—I gave our server a pained smile as she presented us a gift card as her apology.
This makes Oma sound like an old curmudgeon. That’s how I felt at the time, as I bit my tongue and swallowed my words and then shut my bedroom door earlier than usual. Other members of my family commiserated. Why was taking her out to eat such a Sisyphean task? I love my Oma, my last living grandparent. I credit her for teaching me my family’s most treasured recipes and for inspiring my love of baking. But there is something about taking an elderly, particular person out to eat that turns me and the less patient members of my family into exasperated wrecks. If it wasn’t for Bonefish Grill, we’d be entirely screwed.
I viewed these difficulties as a problem to be solved. If only we could change her attitude, or luck upon Oma’s ideal restaurant. In the year since The Worst Dinner Ever, now family lore, the struggle to find an Oma-approved restaurant has become no easier. It’s a matrix, involving calculations of distance, dishes she enjoys, one-level floor plan (no stairs since her knee replacement), low dining-room volume, high lighting level, and ample availability of sturdy, high-backed chairs or booths. Lacking one of these components, a restaurant risks being the wrong choice for our family dinner. We do our best to accommodate her and choose wisely, and yet we still make mistakes: the small-plates Italian place didn’t work, the restaurant in Phoenix was unexpectedly loud, the upscale bar food not quite upscale enough. I don’t even know why we thought to pick the Thai place. The idea of fish sauce was doomed from the start.
Fresh off my recent visit to see Oma in celebration of her 88th birthday, and confident she’ll see at least another 12 more, I want to get better at this. My goal was to crack the code, to reverse-engineer her perfect restaurant. As a case study, I’m reviewing the pleasant birthday meal we had during this trip, at her aforementioned favorite Bonefish Grill.
Oma enjoyed her specialty cocktail, her seafood entree, and most of all, our exuberant server. I found this young woman gratingly enthusiastic, but Oma loved her. She loved the cheesy “happy birthday, young lady” jokes and the birthday freebies. The food was good. The server knew exactly how to make Oma smile. By the end of the meal, when we’d eaten the last of the Jamaican Coconut Pie and finished our final drop of Bonefish Pomegranate Martini, everyone was in good spirits. So, how can we replicate the success of Bonefish Grill, except to eat there for every single meal? (Don’t think we haven’t considered it.)
I hope these are standard dining-out-with-the-elderly difficulties, and I have found sympathy from friends with aging relatives. But another part of me fears I’m just an impatient person. When Oma is dissatisfied and fussing, it makes me almost physically nervous. I want to correct it—the music, the crying baby next to us, the small menu font—right away, when it’s of course impossibly out of my control. I’m also embarrassingly afraid of our server thinking we’re impolite, “the problem table.” So then I’m stuck. I once watched Oma scoop ice cubes out of her glass and leave them to melt on the tablecloth after she’d asked for her drink without ice. I know I should have done something, but I just watched with embarrassment.
When I began writing this, hoping to solve our family’s dining-out conundrum, I figured I’d arrive at an epiphany. I’d solve the equation of booths and menus and early-bird specials and arrive at an answer. Some sagacious commenter would present the perfect suggestion, and we’d find a new option besides Bonefish and hotel restaurants. But there isn’t any answer, besides this one: I’ve been approaching this all wrong.
There is no unifying theory of restaurants for the elderly. I can’t bend the world, not even one restaurant, to someone else’s liking. I can’t control Oma’s mood, or the quality of the chairs, or whether or not the server remembered her request to put sauce on the side. What I can do is practice empathy, both for Oma and for the server whose job it is to please her. My fretting and hand-wringing only agitate the situation. Relating these stories on paper has made me look at them with distance, and what that distance reveals is the whopping revelation that Oma is old. She’s going to have needs and requests. And the restaurants she likes are the ones that listen when she asks to hold a certain ingredient and that have comfortable, delicious food.
That’s pretty much what we all like in restaurants, to one degree or another. We want to feel attended to and welcomed. We want to be able to focus more on the people we’re with, and less on the restaurant’s stage production. For Oma, that means she prefers places that are predictable, safe, and gracious. She doesn’t want to have to decode what a dish’s confusing ingredients are or navigate among too-cramped tables. The restaurant itself shouldn’t be the focal point of our energies. Oma wants to spend time with me, her only granddaughter. The least I can do is reorient my attention toward that conversation, and spend less time hung up on details I can’t control, like whether there’s too much ice in her water.
I can be grateful for how eager Oma is to help plan my upcoming wedding, and how fondly she reminisces about past vacations together. I can enjoy that saucer-sized pomegranate martini and the company of my family. If the calamari is cooked to Oma’s liking, that’s just a nice bonus. I can be more forgiving and less impatient. I can learn to appreciate a super-smily server and a free dessert on your birthday. I can admit that salmon from last summer really was dry.