Out for Dinner

Tonight, let restaurants do the cooking

By Hilary Berg

Having grown up with four siblings and on a tight budget — see “life for a family of seven” — going out to eat was a treat.

Cooking for a large family, day in and day out, was a serious grind, so well-deserved breaks were necessary for my mom’s sanity.

Even at a young age, we all were aware of the family budget, so when the waiter asked for our drinks, in unison, we’d answer, “Water!” We were trained well.

When I was younger, my favorite restaurant was El Mexico Café, where the burritos were massive, piled with cheese sauce and sour cream, and the ambiance was dim yet bright with saturated colors. The place always felt warm and inviting, especially one memorable Christmas Eve — the night parents certainly have earned a hiatus. We came home that night to an early delivery of toys stuffed in lawn bags. Looking back, my parents were exhausted, probably wanting to sleep in. We thought we were so special though, as Santa’s very first stop, at least that’s how I remember it.

As for El Mexico Café, it still exists by name, but it’s not the same: a new location and different tasting menu.

Every now and again, we also schlepped to Livingston’s Diner, a classic greasy spoon. Burgers and grilled cheese on Texas toast are the items I remember most. The original restaurant was demolished decades ago to make room for a much wider highway, yet the business has persisted in new locations. Thankfully, the most important part of the menu, the pies, still greet guests and have since the beginning, 1910.

It’s unusual for restaurants to survive that long with so many moving parts and multiple generations involved.

Over the past almost two years, many of these family restaurants have suffered an unforeseen fate with the pandemic turning these once-buzzing establishments into shells of their former selves.

And the crisis is not over. Unable to hire enough people to staff a dining room or, for some, the kitchen, proprietors have had to make tough decisions in closing their doors.

For some owners, like the Paleys, the timing is right to retire, but for others, it is not.

We are not going to solve the problem by quitting our jobs to cook or serve at our favorite restaurants; these are skilled positions. I waited tables in college and failed miserably, hovering over the guests, effectively rushing them out the door. My tips reflected my inabilities.

Instead, we can make reservations or order carryout.

If you’re on a serious family budget, you can make a difference, too, by treating yourself when you need to, taking a break from planning and cooking meals.

Every order counts, and every parent needs a break, no matter how many mouths to feed.

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