By Shannon Noni Selis
I walked into this restaurant called Choice and asked for a table. “Do you have a reservation?” inquired the maitre’d. I shook my head. “How many in your party?” the maitre’d asked with a disapproving eyebrow raised. “Just me,” I replied. I glanced around the restaurant. The sign above the dining room read “The Bourgeois Bistro.” There were families laughing and eating mac n cheese and pizza. In a quieter area I noticed couples having their wine and steak while holding hands across the candlelit tables. This seems like a pretty nice restaurant. It’s different to seat families in one section and couples in another, but that’s a brilliant idea, I thought.
I waited and waited. It seemed like years went by. I watched groups of people walking past me and be seated. Some were seated right away while others had to wait a little bit. My stomach growled. Will I ever get a table? I’m starting to feel hungry! The speaker was turned on and I heard, “Pity? Party of 1?” I smirked as I thought, Whose last name is Pity? Sucks to be them. But nobody went to the stand. “Pity? Party of 1?” was repeated. I looked around and finally I realized the maitre’d was looking directly at me. I never gave him my name. Pity? How rude, I thought. He walked me past The Bourgeois Bistro. We walked into a brick walled section with a neon flashing “Off the Beaten Path Pub.” Then he sat me at the bar. The bar?? I’ve waited and waited and they put me at the bar?? I questioned a host and she said, “I’m sorry but we don’t allow wanderers into the Bistro.” Wow. That’s some bullshit. “But I’m not a wanderer, I know what I want in life,” was all I could reply. She smiled sympathetically and said, “You’ll enjoy being Off the Beaten Path.” Something about that was wrong, thought the grammar troll within me.
I sullenly scanned the bar area. There were others there, so I wasn’t alone at least. Some people were talking and smiling flirtatiously with each other – had they just met? Is this just a date for them? I received a gin and tonic and looked around again. There were some singles there, too. Some of them sipping soup, others were noshing on a fried appetizer plate. Off the Beaten Path didn’t seem so bad, so far.
I looked down and saw food sitting in front of me. I don’t remember ordering anything… There was curry, Kimchi, sushi, and other exotic foods. “But I didn’t order this,” I told the bartender. He was smiling as he shook his head. “Of course you did. This was your choice.” I started to get frustrated and replied, “What if I wanted mac n cheese like the family back there? Or a filet mignon? Or both?!” A few people were watching me make a commotion but went back to their own bubbles after I quieted down. “You’ll get your steak one day. It will be cooked to perfection. If not, you’ll get another steak. Maybe you’ll have your very own mac n cheese one day. You can have as many different cheeses as you want. But you made this choice.” I couldn’t think of how I made that choice without having actually stated an order.
I gave up and tried my sushi first. It was like candy. The tuna and salmon sashimi were like slices of heaven and paradise. Tasting the Hawaiian roll was like lying on a beach with the sun tanning my skin. I tried a mackerel nigiri – it wasn’t my favorite, but I wouldn’t know it if I hadn’t tried it. Every bite of sushi filled my heart and soul with wonder and happiness. I regretted taking that last bite because it meant my sushi was gone.
I took a few bites of my bread and it seemed to taste so boring and plain. I put it down. I went for the curry next. It was green and spicy. It was a challenge to eat. The heat was making me sweat. The vegetables in it were so different. I just couldn’t get used to it. I didn’t know if I loved it, but it was an experience.
I nibbled the Kimchi. Hmmm. It’s not unfamiliar. But it’s not completely familiar either. The spice was different. I enjoyed the vinegary taste because it reminded me of my beloved pickles from home. Mmm, I liked that garlic flavor too. I could savor this for a bit. I was slow to eat it. I took a bite of bread now and then for comfort. It only satisfied me for the moment though. What I was really craving was fondue…
I looked around again. These people who were occupying the bar seemed so different from the people in the main dining area. They came across as more casual. They looked a little worn, but not tired. It was almost refreshing to be around them. This isn’t an area for people who should be pitied, I thought. I wonder who all these people are? I started talking to people around me. A small group of travellers were eating different kinds of curry and talking about their gap year in Southeast Asia. A hippy looking girl was eating naan and lamb. She looked like she just came from a swim in the Ganges. I noticed everyone was eating something ‘exotic’ in one way or another. A soldier was eating sausage or and a sweet young blond was feasting on a pasta dish.
I approached a couple that seemed sweet and light-hearted. We had great conversation and shared insights and advice. They were drinking sangria, eating rice and beans, and yellow curry. They drank together and ate together. They travelled together. More travellers? “Why aren’t you two eating in the main room? Aren’t you a couple? How did you get seated at the bar?” I inquired. “We chose to sit here. We’re not interested in steak and mac and cheese, ” he replied. “Not right now anyway,” laughed his strawberry blonde mate. We exchanged information, and I went back to my chair.
I drank alone for a bit more. Suddenly I noticed how loud the bar sounded. I checked behind me and saw a bigger guy with a full beard at a table surrounded by others. They were all laughing. The table was cluttered with food and drinks. The bearded guy was eating giant helpings of the food. The others around the table nibbled the food in front of them. I watched for a while. The guy would eat something, then make a joke and everyone around him chortled. Repeat. Repeat. This guy must be hilarious. He seems to have made so many friends! Then he turned and stared directly at me. I waved in embarrassment and he motioned for me to join his group. I grabbed my beverage and walked over. He was huge! He was a like a bear standing up! He draped his heavy arm around my shoulder and said, “Why don’t you eat something with me? We’re all here having a good time and sharing stories. I saw you had some curry. I had curry ages ago. Tell me about it.” So I did. This group of random people sat around laughing and eating and drinking. It was so familiar and comfortable. We shared our stories and experiences. All of us had been somewhere different.
After a few drinks and tasting wonderful treats, the big guy turned to me. “You haven’t introduced yourself, you know. I’m Boston,” he smiled. “Boston? Like the city?” I asked. Boston replied, “Yeah where are you from?” “Orlando,” I said, sheepishly. “It’s nice to meet you, Orlando,” everyone replied. I was meeting people from all over the world: Seattles (loads of them), Michigans, Germany, Norway, France, Perth, Israel, Malaysia, Essex, Londons, and so many more people! Nobody had a real name, but nobody seemed to need it. We were all swapping stories and information. It wasn’t long before I realized that this Off the Beaten Path Pub was exactly what I wanted and where I needed to be right now. I’m sure one day I’ll get a table in the Bourgeois Bistro, but I’ll make that reservation when I’m ready. I guess it really is my Choice. So, until then, à la bonne vie!
Shannon Selis is an English teacher and massage therapist currently frequenting South Korean karaoke bars. When she’s not teaching, singing show tunes, or mastering recipes, she shares her experiences at wittylmt and Another Food Thing.