It is a little later than usual when I leave work and head to Lark, and the room is half full when I walk in. The server who comes forward to greet me is new and does not recognize me, but I fold myself onto the hard wooden bench with the same anticipation that I always do. As I look over the menu I hear snatches of conversation floating out of the general hum of my fellow diners, debating over menu choices or presidential candidates or the merits of various cast members of Dancing with the Stars. Another server, one who does know me well, arrives with a tall glass of water and the night's specials. I waver between the lasagna - they do pasta so well here - and the sturgeon, and finally settle for a beet salad (another special of the evening), and the sturgeon.
The beet salad is composed of sweet tender beets, a deep red, and crumbled bits of Fontina, creamy white, with potato bread croutons, a toasty golden color, all bound together with a cherry (he did say cherry, didn't he?) vinegar, olive oil (I think), and tiny bits of shallots (maybe) and chives, which glisten and sparkle like jewels in the last of the sunlight that streams through the windows. When I am done, I scrape the remaining bits of shallots and chives into a messy heart to express how much I loved it, which amuses my server no end. Then I eat all the bread and butter on my plate, some slices of plain baguette and walnut baguette, shedding crumbs in all directions.
Then my fish arrives, and I see that the table next to me has ordered it as well. Actually, I see that many people dining tonight have ordered the same thing, a procession of identical plates circling around the room. The sturgeon is served on a bed of white cabbage and apples and onions and bacon, perhaps a few slices of potatoes, like a German slaw, slightly sweet and salty and tart and flavored with some unknown herbs and spices. Caraway, perhaps, or a touch of mustard. (Most likely I am completely off base). It is unusual and slightly exotic, the way unfamiliar things are exotic, taking the traditional cabbage-onion-apple slaw and tossing it up in the air, so to speak. Which is what I like about eating out, seeing how a good chef can take something familiar and perhaps boringly traditional and transforming it entirely.
While I eat my dinner I watch the other people around me, eavesdrop on their conversations. The couple next to me ask our server if the current financial crisis has affected business at all. It has, he tells them, to a certain extent, but they are somewhat cushioned by a good reputation and nationwide press. Still, there are a few empty tables tonight, which used to be unheard-of on a Saturday evening. Fewer people are coming for dinner as dinner, and more for special occasions such as an anniversary or a birthday. It is a sobering realization of the ripple effects of an economic downturn, and sometimes I feel a sense of guilt for being able to afford this dinner when other people are weighing the cost of gas against the cost of groceries, of health insurance, of bills that seem to come from thin air. When I take it for granted that having to fix my air-conditioning will not affect my food budget for the month, when I take it for granted that there will be enough left over for a new pair of shoes that I don't actually need.
I notice that fewer people are ordering dessert, as I tuck into my fig tart, all chewy fruit and crisp, flaky pastry, doused in warm caramel and a cool chêvre sorbet that melts faster than I can eat it. They linger over coffee, or decline any sweets and simply pay their bill and go. Perhaps they are watching their waistline, or their wallet. Or both.