Because I couldn't bear the thought of staring at the four walls of
my hotel room and eating a dreary dinner in a hotel restaurant, I
pushed myself to stick with my original plan: Dinner at Garrido's. A
casual Mexican restaurant somewhere in Austin.
The result? An action-packed night filled with squeaky bats, soft tacos, and a stroll through the Sixth Street Warehouse district of Texas' capital city.
I'd decided on Garrido's before I arrived in Austin. It had recently been given high marks by a Wall Street Journal writer reviewing the city's restaurant scene.
"At Garrido's, which opened in June, chef David Garrido marries his background as the longtime chef at Jeffrey's, one of the fanciest restaurants in Austin, to his Mexican and Texan heritage. In the Tex-Mex tradition of a groaning platter, tacos are served with rice and beans, but they're filled with mahi mahi, coffee rubbed rib eye or lightly battered oysters."
And no entree costs more then $11. I was sold.
I thought it would be within a few blocks of the Hilton, where I was
attending a conference, but it was more like three-quarters of a mile
I momentarily felt deterred. But I wasn't going to let myself back out of my plan.
Earlier, a work colleague had offered to keep me company if I wanted to go out to eat. She had a dinner with clients at 7:45 but she was willing to sip a drink while I ate.
I was tempted. Company for dinner! But I hadn't seen anything of Austin and this was my only chance. I'd spent two days cooped up in hotel ballrooms. If I went with her it would have to be early and someplace close. Instead, I stuck to my plan.
That doesn't mean I didn't feel uncomfortable heading off to dinner alone. What would I encounter? Would dinner be weird, sitting by myself? Always, always, always, I feel the apprehension. But 10 times out of 10, the apprehension is way worse than the actual experience of dining alone.
I headed out, walking briskly, hanging on to a map a woman at the reception desk had printed out for me. Eight blocks down Fourth Street. Turn Left.
The first couple of blocks felt a little deserted. I made a mental note to ask the restaurant about taxi service back. Right soon (don't you think they'd say something like that in Texas?) I came upon street art.
A huge colorful guitar, and behind it, about a mile down, the dome of the state capitol building, glowing orange with the setting sun. Right then, I started feeling revived and happy with my decision.
I took out my camera. Snapped. Continued on.
I passed a slew of restaurants in the Warehouse District, one I'd remembered eating at during another visit, also work related. Didn't dally. Still stuck to my plan.
A few blocks later I was out of the "happenin' " district and passing a parking lot and some construction. Not a hopeful sign. But I kept going.
I finally found the place. It's in a block with several eating establishments that seem new. Maybe retailers are trying to build up this section of Austin with new hip places? I liked the look of a yogurt place called Yummy Yo, which had self-serve machines built into the wall.
Inside Garrido's, four people were ahead of me, waiting to be seating. I had a brief flash that they'd see I was alone and invite me to eat with them. Silly.
A young, skinny guy in a gray sweater and jeans came to my table. The restaurant must advertise openings at the nearby University of Texas. I could see the cooks through an pass-through window to the kitchen and they also were baby faced.
Austin in general seems like an "anti-Miami." You don't go to retire, but to start out, was my impression. And in the process, many residents help "keep Austin weird," as the unofficial t-shirt motto insists, shouting it from a tie-dyed background.
I was in a comfy chair at a nice dark wood table with a view of some trees outside and a terrace table occupied by a solo male diner. The tables near me were filled with two young couples, two middle-aged couples and two women and a baby.
Two men sat at the bar, not together. Though I've suggested the bar as a place to eat solo, I preferred the "privacy" of my own table.
There was a lively buzz to the place. Music in the background (not CNN or HBO on the hotel TV!) And lots to look at. I didn't feel the least bit conspicuous or watched. The lighting was nicely muted.
At one point, a large table full of people burst into loud laughter. Do you think they were paying attention to the solo diners in the place? Not in the least.
The waiter brought me my Negra Modelo and a paper cone filled with chips, with salsa on the side. After scanning the menu, I went with one mahi mahi soft taco (with bacon bits, lettuce and tomato and habanero aioli) and one ahi tuna soft taco (with Serrano mango aioli and mango pico de gallo).
Or as the waiter put it when he delivered it: one mahi and one ahi. It was all very tasty although not as stellar as the review made me think it would be. And though the reviewer described the taco plate as a "groaning platter," I didn't think it was a huge amount of food. (Maybe the recession kicked in between now and when he reviewed the place?)
When I was done eating, the waiter came by and asked if I would like the dessert I'd questioned him about earlier: Mexican vanilla ice cream with cajeta (goat cheese caramel sauce) and crunchy apple topping.
He smiled encouragingly. He'd been friendly and pleasant all evening. Oh sure, why not? When he placed the huge bowl, spattered with designer sticky caramel sauce all over it, he asked, "Does it look alright?"
I told him it looked amazing. "I told you," he said. It's awesome." And it was pretty darn good, though I could only manage two of the three small scoops of vanilla with all that rich topping.
As I sat there thinking about how giddily successful the evening was it occurred to me that one of the major things that got me out of the hotel that night was a set plan hatched days earlier for this particular restaurant.
In addition to having a restaurant in mind, I also had the goal of writing a post about the solo dining experience. I was pushed along with my plan when looking around the hotel room and thinking if I didn't get out I'd be spending six hours in there before I could go to sleep. Ick.
Would it help if you decided to make it an adventure that you could describe to a friend or significant other via email? Is there some other goal you can set so instead of focusing on your potential discomfort, your mind can be on some positive aspect of the solo dining experience?
I offer you this: Say you're alone and a solo dinner is in your future. Write it up and I'll post it on my blog as a guest post. Take a notebook or some sheets of paper. (Or if you forgot both, as I did, consider using the back of your Southwest Airlines e-ticket. Although any airline will do.)
Write down what looks good on the menu. Look around and tell me what you observe. The people, the lighting, the set up, the wait staff. Most of all examine how you feel. Proud? Scared? Happy that you were able to overcome those barriers?
If this will motivate you, try it. If not, or you don't want to write about it, tell me what gets you out the hotel door to dine alone so I can share it with other readers.
As for the bats I mentioned...Austin has the largest urban bat colony in the United States and it's a major tourist attraction. I'd headed to the Congress Avenue Bridge on a previous visit to see the 1.5 million bats fly out at sunset, foraging for bugs and other yummy vittles for their dinner.
But it didn't occur to me that I'd hear them during my walk since I wasn't at the bridge. I'd pass trees and hear a lot of squeaking. If you didn't know better, you'd think they were birds. But birds don't usually tweet, or squeak, after dark. So I asked a few locals. "Are those the bats in the trees?" They smiled and nodded.
Wacky. And not something I would have experienced from my sterile hotel room.
Photos: Ellen Perlman
1. Garrido's chips and salsa. 2. Austin street art. 3. Garrido's dessert 4. T-shirts sold at the airport, and everywhere else. 5, 6 and 7. Restaurants in the Warehouse district