The dictionary may claim that a restaurant is “a business establishment where meals or refreshments may be purchased,” but we all know that definition doesn’t begin to describe everything restaurants can be.
They can be sources of sustenance, of comfort, of inspiration. From a regular place where they know your name to a new spot that busts open your world, restaurants serve up feels as much as food.
So to better define what restaurants mean in our lives today, these definitions fill in the blank: A restaurant is …
… a home away from home
Up through World War II, Paris cafés often had pigeon holes for regulars’ cloth napkins. We don’t have to literally treat a restaurant as our kitchen-dining room to know that feeling of walking into our regular place or a spot with that perfectly homey vibe. (There are also those for whom restaurants feel like a home office: from laptop warriors to fundraisers who book out the place to raise money at a private dinner.)
… a portal to the world
Restaurants are where many people have their first taste of new-to-them cuisines. One taste of jägerschnitzel or lumpia or injera can trigger a lifelong exploration of cuisines and cultures. Some restaurants play up this possibility and seek to recreate a sense of being in a different part of the world for anyone lucky enough to snag a table.
… a workplace
Over 14 million people in the U.S. alone work at restaurants, and more than half of all adults have worked in a restaurant at some point. Even more impressive than the sheer size of the restaurant workforce is the way restaurants bring together people from different stages of life and even wildly different backgrounds—a college student taking orders next to a recent immigrant plating salads next to a career bartender mixing drinks.
… a studio
Restaurants are obvious hotbeds of creativity when it comes to food, but their innovation can go far beyond menus. Take Carsten Höller, the artist who opened Brutalisten in Stockholm earlier this year as an operational restaurant that is also an art project. Or FOOD, an artist-run restaurant in early 1970s New York that fed starving artists affordable meals and served up artist-created culinary events.
… an escape
From sumptuous fine-dining rooms to rollicking venues with live music, restaurants provide all kinds of escape from daily life. We chill with a glass of wine and a snack for a moment of peace between work and home. We cram cheek-to-jowl to soak up the buzz. We leave to-do lists in the rear-view mirror as we settle into tables on date nights.
… a milestone marker
Whether to celebrate special occasions—a first date or every birthday—or a place you associate with a specific time in your life—high school, college, the first year in a new city—restaurants can hold intensely emotional places in our memories and imaginations. And there’s science behind it: Smells take a direct route to the limbic system of our brains, where we process memory and emotion.
… a lifeline
Restaurants have a way of swooping in to save the day. With a hearty meal after a harried day. With a first job. With a safe space for a community to gather and build. With support for the neighborhood Little League team. With donations for the PTA auction.
We go to restaurants when we’re hungry, but also when we’re bored of our own cooking or need a bit of cheering up. We go when we crave a dish or hope to chat with our favorite bartender. We go when we’re full of hope on a first date and when we’re full of love on an anniversary. Be it tacos or attention, Champagne or entertainment, somehow restaurants magically fill us up with what we need.
Molly Watson is the principal overseeing content strategy at OpenTable. Joy Manning is a brand editor at OpenTable. All illustrations by Maggie Famiglietti.