A few years ago a well-connected friend of mine suggested that I join her for one of the first, invitation-only nights at what was sure to be the hottest new restaurant in Washington. When I told people, they were so jealous of me I became jealous of myself.
Then we got there. The place was rigged for bedlam: awkward corners, tight squeezes and, of course, the merciless ricocheting of sound. We were seated at a communal table of sorts with strangers – festive! – and there was so much sharing of so many dishes that I lost track of what I’d tried, what I hadn’t, what I’d loved and what I’d loathed. By the hour mark, I had heard about one stranger’s European jaunt, another’s job promotion and, if memory serves, a third’s veterinary bills. The pooch maybe had respiratory problems. Please pass the shrimp.
Did I used to enjoy this? I don’t anymore, and there’s no vivid anecdote to explain my slide into culinary curmudgeon. There’s only the passage of time. I was once under 50. I’m now over that mark. And it’s not just sex and sleep that change as you age. It’s supper.
A large part of that, yes, concerns your physical evolution. But a larger part concerns your spiritual one. Your appetite matures, in terms of both the food and the mood you crave. Virgin sensations are less important; knowing that you’ll be able to hear and really talk with your tablemates, more. If having that reassurance means patronizing the same restaurant over and over, so be it. A roasted chicken in the hand is worth two in the bush.
What you want from restaurants, it turns out, is a proxy for what you want from love and from life. None of these is constant. All reflect the arc that you’ve traveled, the peace that you have or haven’t made. When I was 34, I wanted bling, because it persuaded me that I was special. When I was 44, I wanted blinis, because they made me feel sophisticated. At 54, I just want martinis, because I’m certain of what’s in them and of what that potion can do: blunt the day and polish the night.
I’m in good company, by which I mean that most people who are about my age or older don’t have the same relationships with restaurants they did decades ago. I know because I’m always asking them, and what they say is familiar: They no longer sprint to the next shimmering frontier. They won’t suffer stools with no lumbar support. They keep their smartphone flashlights at the ready, in case the same dimness that’s such a kindness to wrinkles renders those letters on the menu – when did they get so tiny? – illegible.
“There definitely used to be several factors in choosing where I wanted to eat, but all of them pale now in comparison to quiet,” said Mo Rocca, the actor, TV journalist and host of the CBS News podcast “Mobituaries.” He proudly turned 50 two months ago. “I have no problem saying that I’d rather eat at a place that’s more like the library,” he told me. “In fact, if the library opened a restaurant, I’d be first in line.”
Loud is no longer exciting. Trendy is overrated. “In my 20s, I’d go someplace because it was new or ‘fancy,’” said my friend Sandra Bernhard, the comedian and host of “Sandyland” on Sirius XM radio. She’s 65 now, and said that she needs better reasons than that. She’s not worried about impressing anybody, least of all herself.
Ina Garten, the wildly popular author of the “Barefoot Contessa” cookbooks, told me that she and her husband, Jeffrey, “go to the same restaurant over and over again until we just can’t do it anymore, then we go to another restaurant over and over again until we just can’t do it anymore. And that can last two years.” She’s 71, he’s 72 and they weren’t quite this set in their ways decades ago, she said.
Because the couple lives near New York City, acquaintances are always asking her about the latest, greatest place to eat there. “Haven’t a clue!” she told me. “Once in awhile we’ll try a hot new restaurant, and then we’ll go there for two years.”
I surveyed several restaurateurs: They didn’t find her habits unusual. Older diners, they said, are more likely to be regulars – and the most frequent regulars at that.
That’s not just because we tend to have more money. It’s also because we’re tired of being invisible.
If you’re under 50 and definitely if you’re under 40, you have yet to experience how you disappear over the years, especially if you’re not a looker and all the more so if you’re a woman. Sustained gazes, casual glances and solicitous words go disproportionately to the young. To age is to feel as if pieces of you are falling or fading away, so that you somehow take up less space in the world. So that you’re harder to see.
But not by restaurants that know and value you. To them you’re luminous.
Danny Meyer, the restaurateur and hospitality guru behind Union Square Cafe, Gramercy Tavern, Shake Shack and so much more, brought up something that one of the past century’s most prominent tastemakers would say. “James Beard famously told people that when he was stopped in airports and asked what his favorite restaurant was, he answered: ‘It’s the same as yours,’” Meyer recalled. “‘It’s the one that loves me the most.’”
If that’s true to some extent for all epicures, Meyer said, it’s all the truer as they age.
He has noticed something else, too, a quirk that I think goes hand in hand with older diners’ disinclination to wait 90 minutes for a table at a thronged establishment, to jostle for the host’s attention, to submit to cooking that’s about a self-conscious chef’s strenuous inventiveness as much as our simple pleasure. “The newfangled cocktail lists, which we all have, are less exciting to people in their 50s, who by that time know what their favorite cocktail is,” Meyer said. “They don’t mind all the imaginative craft cocktails. But they also want to know that you’ll do a great job of making their go-to cocktail.” We’re not looking to trade up. We’re all about commitment.
My own dining history, admittedly, isn’t normal: For five years, from the ages of 39 to 44, I was The Times’ restaurant critic, and thus obliged to hurtle to the freshest arrivals on the scene. I haven’t expunged that from my system entirely. As soon as I got word that I could try the TAK Room, which is the revered chef Thomas Keller’s new venture in Manhattan’s gleaming Hudson Yards development, I went there, grateful that I could afford the splurge. Having tasted its steak (and its martini), I wish I could afford it weekly.
I’m increasingly like Garten, an unapologetic creature of habit. When I visited my younger brother in the Los Angeles area early this month, he asked me where I wanted to eat. There were many untried options. But I chose Baran’s 2239, in Hermosa Beach, because it was less than 15 minutes from his house, we’d had terrific meals there and its owners always seemed elated to welcome us back. I ordered the smoked-and-fried chicken for the third straight time.
Martha Hoover, 64, who owns a dozen restaurants in the Indianapolis area, told me that what distinguishes older diners is that we know, and have accepted, ourselves. “I’m not so concerned about curating my identity when I go out to eat,” she said. “I’m very sure about what I want.” Often that’s scrambled eggs or roasted chicken.
What’s the point of striking gold – a perfect Caesar salad, a server whose banter complements your own, a bearable din and a survivable chair – if you’re going to move on? And why search for the prettiest crowd when the only omnivores who matter are the ones at your table, chosen because they’ve been there before and your conversation with them, infused with a shared history, grows richer and more nourishing? The cast of characters with whom we older diners go out to eat doesn’t rotate all that much.
“Being with people I don’t know and feel I have to entertain – I find that exhausting,” Garten told me. “But being with people I love? I have more energy after.”
The chef Jonathan Waxman, 68, who owns the Manhattan restaurants Barbuto and Jams, said that we older diners are true in our tastes to the etymology of the word “restaurant,” which promises to “restore one’s spirit.”
A close friend my age put it this way: “I used to care about being entertained, and now being soothed feels more important. Life, it turns out, is hard.”
Restaurants shouldn’t be.
Frank Bruni is a columnist for The New York Times.