In the days when my husband the sportswriter traveled the country covering the NFL, my kids would often meet him at the door upon his return home.
"Mom's on the edge," Joe would say. "You gotta take us to the mall for dinner."
So you see, the expression "dining out" has never had the same meaning for me that it might have for others.
It never got the chance to mean soft lights, quiet conversation and excellent food for me. Dining out was something my husband and the kids did so I could decompress and we wouldn't make the 11 p.m. news.
As a result, I look at restaurant reviews and dining guides a little differently — opportunities for other people to enjoy soft lights, quiet conversation and excellent food. But not me.
When the kids were young, in an attempt to civilize them, we would occasionally take them out to eat, usually at a Chinese restaurant. What child, after all, doesn't like fried rice?
Joe would see the white tablecloths and the white napkins and murmur to his sister, "Jessie, we have to use all our manners here."
What we didn't know was that Jessie was sensitive to MSG, an additive often found in Chinese food. It made her crazy hyper, and she would try to dance on the tabletop. There was always a lot of soy sauce — and a generous tip — on the white tablecloth when we departed with our manic child in a firm grip.
Later, when Joe would visit from the Naval Academy or return from some long training trip, we would celebrate not with dinner out but with a mountain of his favorite foods prepared in my kitchen. I would put plates of chicken scallopini in front of him and we would argue politics. Those are some of the most memorable dining experiences of my life.
My husband the sportswriter has traveled the world, too, and when he returns he longs for his own bed and my meatloaf. His long absences have never meant dinner out to celebrate our reunion, with soft music, quiet conversation and excellent food. It has meant, instead, home cookin' and another night in the kitchen for me.
"Why don't we just save the money?" asks the man who buys only gasoline and coffee and is convinced we will be eating off the McDonald's $1 menu in retirement. At least we would be dining out, I think to myself.
LivingSocial and Groupon rank right up there with wine boxes when it comes to creating fun on a budget. With the kids grown and gone — and my husband the sportswriter still traveling and still asking for meatloaf when he returns — I use them to dine at restaurants I already like, and to try new ones.
I dine out now with my friend Betsy, and if we are getting dinner for half price it just tastes better. We had Indian food for the first time not long ago, and we loved it.
She has a dirty martini and I have wine and we talk about work and the kids. There is soft light, good conversation and excellent food. We are both married to men who don't like to dine out because they don't like to spend the money, so it works very well. We never order meatloaf.
When her father is away, I can often lure my daughter out to dinner with one of my LivingSocial deals. There is soft light and excellent food, but also a lot of tense conversation. She is waiting for me to criticize and I am measuring every word to make sure there is no criticism there. And I pick up the tab, which kind of defeats the purpose of a coupon.
The world has turned and now there is Mikey, a 3-year-old grandson, and I am cheerfully eager to dine out with him. He makes his tortilla chips soar and dip into the salsa, he sucks loudly on the straw in his root beer and when we go to Chinese restaurants, we always leave plenty of fried rice on the floor and a nice tip. My husband the grandfather never says anything about meatloaf or the cost.
Mikey has a baby brother, Jack, who is 6 months old and smearing cereal all over his face twice a day. I am guessing that there will be no dining out until he can handle fried rice or tortilla chips. That's OK. I don't mind. I'll just make meatloaf for everybody else and let Jack have his facial.
We are lucky enough to have a swell little restaurant near us in Annapolis — Paul's Homewood Cafe. We can walk there, which means we can drink there, and I often arrive home on a Friday night after a hard week at work and reprise a scene with my husband from long ago.
"I am on the edge. Take me to Paul's for dinner."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun