On the cusp of my 42nd Birthday, I’m the youngest person in the place. There is a wealth of experience and wisdom (and white hair) around me. I’m sitting alone at a table near the window, so I can watch the foot and car traffic go by. I make an attempt to tune-in to the energy in this space. Throughout the year we have so many opportunities to regroup, evaluate & start fresh – New Year’s Eve, the 1st Day of School, Spring Cleaning – but a Birthday is a very personal cause for reflection, and there’s a 70th Birthday one table over, at Teibel’s family Restaurant in Northwest Indiana.
I’d asked for restaurant recommendations at my chain hotel – that’s about all there was near the area I was working, besides questionable motels with doors that faced a full parking lot. The immediate response from the 20-something behind the counter was “You should go to Culver’s. It’s really close.” Being a vegetarian, who avoids overly processed and fast food, I ask if she might have a printed list of suggestions. Handing the list over, this gal is quite genuine as she recommends 5 Guys Burgers and Fries – the rapidly expanding burger chain I’ve been to once at the mall back home. They do have great fries, but that’s not quite what I’m looking for.
Making one more attempt, I asked if she could recommend something local, something with real character and personality, a place with a story. What I really wanted was something that had a loyal following of regulars. After a long pause I’m directed to a sports bar across the street. . . she’s pretty sure they serve food. I thank her and head up to my room with the list, already suspecting that Siri will better help me to figure out where to go. Rather quickly Siri and I find Teibel’s.
Their website declares a newly renovated dining room, but when I arrive it’s a bit hushed and formal for the mood I’m in. But I have choices – this 1929 restaurant has open tables for formal dining, a lounge and bar, café and a banquet space that seems to be gearing up for a rather large retirement party. The spare wheelchair is waiting near the expectant coatrack. The dining lounge is the liveliest spot in the place at the moment, so I head that direction.
Without exception, the waitresses are in a uniform that includes rather sensible, black shoes – heavy and flat, with rubber soles, and quite possibly orthotics. They have been on their feet all day, for many, many years. They have gained some insight into the workforce, and are finished with high heeled fashion statements. They are friendly and warm, and welcome me to my small table.
What’s really in it for me when I “eat local”? I get real food, made with local ingredients, in a variety that forces me to try new things. There’s atmosphere, a chance to meet the owner, and learn about the local community. The stories behind the place and the people there (customers, wait staff, chefs and owners) keep me listening in and learning new things each and every day, every meal.
In the 8 decades it has been open Teibel’s has evolved from the 12-seat highway diner into what it is today. It’s a throwback, however, with it’s faux leather chairs on wheels, cloth napkins folded into teepees at every plate, and custom paper napkins that have probably found their way into many a bride or bridesmaid’s scrapbook as a wedding keepsake.
There’s an interesting mix of characters in the place. Sitting across from me is a customer who seems very much at home. If he hasn’t eaten here before a hundred times, then he’s certainly frequented similar establishments across the country. He’s a bit of a stereotype of the businessman, working through dinner alone, still in his suit and tie. I can’t help but notice that he really enjoys the cheesy horseradish spread sitting in the center of his table.
With a basket of crackers and garlic bread sticks, all wrapped in cellophane, and cheesy horseradish spread or real butter for rolls, there’s nothing gluten free, nut free or dairy free about the traditional fare being offered. These appear the minute you sit down. A choice of ice cream for dessert is included with the full meal, along with soup, salad or relish tray and choice of potatoes or rice.
Sifting through the menu, I ask the waitress what the restaurant is especially known for. What do people really come there for? (They have been in business for 80 years after all.)She points to the Yellow Lake Perch, which I’m told pairs well with the house Chardonnay that has the Teibel’s name on it. From the menu: “We proudly present Teibel’s Merlot and Chardonnay, made with California grapes blended and bottled exclusively for us. . . The Chardonnay, full of fruit and a hint of butter, is made specifically for our lake perch.” How can I pass that up?
Is there anything “in it for me” when I eat alone? I informally polled my “social network” to see when the last time was that they had flown in an airplane, the last time they slept in a hotel room & the last time they had eaten in a restaurant (sitting down and ordering from a waiter) alone. A surprising number said it had been years since they had flown, months since they stayed in a hotel, and they had never eaten in a restaurant alone.
There were a handful of exceptions, but eating alone seems to make many people very uncomfortable. Some people just hadn’t ever thought to eat out alone, or found the idea unnerving, and something to avoid. It’s become such a routine part of my travel to frequent (alone) a variety of restaurants, diverse in quality, price point, atmosphere and food offered, and I forget that what I do is not the norm.
So, are there any benefits? Well, there’s no one to share with, so I end up with a lot of leftovers if I don’t order carefully. I’m likely to order small plates of tapas, appetizers, soups, and desserts when I know I don’t want leftovers, because there’s another great restaurant I want to try the next night. I’ve learned to speak up and ask if there is a smaller portion available of whatever the house special is. And I always ask the staff what drives their most loyal customers to return again and again.
Dining alone I can move at a slower, lingering pace and enjoy some quiet. Or, if I have extra energy to burn I might search for something more engaging, or go for a bike ride and then eat a later dinner when my appetite catches up with me. The decisions are entirely up to me, so there’s a lot less time wasted asking “Where do you feel like eating tonight?”
More importantly, eating solo I make extra time to chat with waitresses and fellow diners. I’m able to sit quietly, and listen in on the birthday party going on beside me.
“Now, who’s having dessert?!” the waitress asks. It’s more of a statement than a question.
“Which of us do you think is oldest?” one of the men at the table is feeling a bit feisty.
“Do not answer that!” the lady next to him immediately interjects.
“One of them dyes their hair!” another one of the gentlemen feels the need to join in.
“I don’t like to start fights amongst my customers.” the waitress replies, with a chuckle and a shake of her head. As I said, she has a lot of years waiting tables under her belt, and knows better than to join this conversation.
The owners of such places are often of the same generation as their loyal customers, so there’s a chance that as that population ages these places may fall to the wayside. I hope that’s not the case.
On my way out to the car (with leftovers) I’m introduced to the Teibel family through a series of formal, painted portraits hanging in the lobby. I meet Robert & Ruth and Martin & Lydia. I’m bid farewell by Stephen & Marie, and invited back by Harold & Marion. I’m not sure I’ll ever be back to this city, but if I am I’d absolutely return to the restaurant. I head out of town and make the long drive back to Columbus, past many a corn field.
If you haven’t seen the field of windmills that emerge seemingly out of nowhere, in the middle of Indiana’s cell phone “dead zone”, it’s worth the trip. You’ll see it on your way to dinner at Teibel’s, also worth the trip if you’re looking for a traditional family dining experience, complete with cheesy horseradish spread.
Join me on the next adventure,