I drove around the restaurant in my rented red Chevy Sonic, looking for a way to get to the parking lot behind it. The temperature had dropped and I was hoping I could park behind the restaurant instead of a few blocks away. There was some rush hour traffic in downtown Madison, so crossing the intersection of Blair Street and E. Washington was crazy.
After many circles, including going down a residential street dead end in order to do a u-turn, I made it to the back of Sardine. I was excited to have found an excellent parking spot: right in front of the door. I had dressed up just a little bit for the occasion, wearing a new oversized caramel-colored sweater and a long-sleeved gold-striped white sweater underneath.
I walked in and sat at the bar. In the past, when I dined by myself I would request a table for myself so I could read, but my husband talked me out of it. He travels a lot for work, as do I, and refuses to take a whole table for himself. It made sense to me, so now I sit at the bar. It’s nice to be in the company of people at the bar, even if they are strangers.
I had been to Sardine a few weeks before, my first trip to Madison, so I was familiar with the menu. I ordered a lavender-infused drink (don’t remember the name, for it was French) and then asked for a warm duck confit salad and house-made cavatelli pasta. I’m not a French restaurant aficionado (can’t pronounce most of the stuff on the menu anyway) but I came to this restaurant as per the recommendation of a friend and didn’t regret it. In fact, when I was planning my second work trip to Madison I decided I would revisit Sardine instead of going to a new restaurant.
Earlier, in November, it had been a brunch place in
Cleveland Cincinnati, Ohio. (Edit: This wonderful place is called Taste of Belgium, and if you’re ever in the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood you should check it out!) I walked half a mile on a Sunday morning, a few hours before my return flight to Houston, to a place that had been rated highly on Yelp. When I walked in, I barely found my way to the hostess; that’s how packed it was. But the wait was worth it for the tastiest chicken and waffles I’ve ever had. I can still taste the sweetness of the belgian waffle mingling with the spiciness of the chicken breast.
Ever since I started graduate school I’ve traveled often. First, there was the trip once a semester back to Puerto Rico. Add to that my semi-regular bus/car rides to New York City to visit family. Then there are the academic conferences that you must attend as a graduate student (how this puts many graduate students in debt is another post altogether). In addition, my husband has almost always traveled for his work as a broadcaster, and I sometimes tag along by myself or with the little one. Now, I’ve started a new job that requires me to travel every month or so. I always like to try local foods when I travel, but when I travel by myself I make a point to try to treat myself to dinner.
I remember one particular academic conference I attended in Calgary, Canada. I was staying at a hotel far from the conference location (because it was cheaper, of course). I was alone and didn’t know anyone other than the people on my panel. After a full day of panels and academic conversation, I returned to my hotel mentally exhausted–and I was hungry. I walked downstairs to the hotel lobby, trying to figure out if I should go out and try to find a cheap alternative or if I should just walk into the little restaurant at this hotel. I went with the hotel restaurant.
I don’t remember what I ate or how much it cost or who the waiter was. Now what I remember is making that decision to treat myself to dinner in a new country at an unknown place. I also remember looking at the menu and sizing up what I could and could not afford (after all, this was dinner at the hotel restaurant). The meal wasn’t anything to write home about. But it was a nice little treat for myself.
I don’t remember when I started doing it, to be honest. As a graduate student I was always being trained for austerity. Eating at a restaurant seemed like a luxury, like money spent on something other than books (or conferences, for that matter). But even when I was away at conferences I tried to take a little time for myself. My advisor suggested, when I was prepping for my first academic conference, to always take a day to take in my surroundings, go out, take a break. That advice has stuck with me ever since.
Taking myself to dinner is a form of self-care, I’ve realized. It can be pricey, I know. I haven’t always had the money to treat myself to a dinner at a hip French restaurant, even if it’s in Wisconsin. I understand that treating myself to dinner entails privilege. Heck, attending those conferences as a graduate student entailed privilege: I had a fellowship, I took out student loans in addition to the fellowship, I had a credit card (that I had maxed out by the time I had a daughter, but that’s Another Story, Part II). But I always try to go somewhere nice for dinner, somewhere that isn’t a sandwich or a pizza or takeout. I think of it as spending money on an experience instead of on a thing.
Eating out isn’t something I started doing as a graduate student either. I grew up in a humble household. We had a little bit of cash, but my parents were not rich by any means. We watched what we spent all the time—a habit that sticks with me today; I’ll buy a bottle of wine and cringe if it’s more than ten dollars. But one thing my parents would do from time to time was treat us to eating out. Whether it was a sit-down place or a kiosk by the edge of the road in some far town, we always took time to go out and eat.
As an undergraduate in San Juan, I had a friend who loved going out for dinner. We’d go out once in a while and check out restaurants; sometimes I paid and sometimes he treated me to dinner. I was still a poor undergraduate, you know.
My sister-in-law likes to remind me of the Italian restaurant we went to the day we first met, and I tend to think that it set the tone for our relationship: we bond often over food, even now that I’ve started eating meat again and she has become a vegan. When I traveled more often to NYC, we would always find a restaurant to try out, and we shared plates so we could sample more things for the same price. This Christmas we ventured out to a local farmer’s market in Houston and had breakfast on our laps.
So when I travel, I go out. I don’t do it every night (I followed up dinner at Sardine with continental breakfast at the hotel lobby and soup from Panera on my way back from work), but I try to at least find one night where I go and find a restaurant with some good Yelp reviews and see what the future holds.
What’s in it for me, other than good food? The feeling that I’m doing something nice for myself. I am sometimes hard on myself and on my eating habits, so I am trying to talk myself out of monitoring what I eat and chastising myself for what I don’t. But when I go out, I give myself a pass. I try to enjoy the food for what it is, and remember that this will not happen again. This plate at this moment? This is it.
One thing I learned when I decided to step away from my tenure-track dreams was that I wanted more time for myself and for my family. When I was on the traditional academic track, I felt I had no control over my days because I always had something to work on in the hopes that I would become a professor some day. So now I make an effort to take time for myself.
Self-care is important at any stage of our lives and that it doesn’t have to be about things. Self-care can be about experiences, sensorial and otherwise. It doesn’t even have to be about dinner you buy for yourself; that’s just the approach I take. It could be about taking the time to make a meal for yourself, carving time out of your schedule to make something that you like or that you want.
Taking myself out to dinner (or sometimes lunch or brunch) is me taking a time out for myself. Sitting down, looking at the menu, waiting for the food: this process allows me time to just be with myself. They’re moments of being, in a life where I’m always multi-tasking.