At some point, early-bird specials may have the last laugh, but I doubt it. I remember when my two aunts -- then both in their 80s -- insisted that we go to dinner at 4:30 in the afternoon, when the prices were cheaper by a third and half the tables would remain empty. The other half of those tables would of course be occupied by their neighbors from Leisure World.
Personally, I hated it. The men in shorts with high white socks and sandals, the loud conversations shouted to be heard by failing hearing aids, the sun still high in the sky and ruining whatever ambiance the room would have once the sun set and the candles came out. And why would anyone want to eat dinner at what was arguably an hour for a late lunch?
For me, the early-bird specials that I shared weekly on Sundays with my aunts were an edible symbol of what growing old looked like. Sure you would save a few dollars by eating off-hours, but wasn't there something else being lost?
Both my aunts were wealthy women; wealthy, but never wasteful. For them, getting a bargain merely enhanced the deliciousness of the meal. The restaurant seemed to value its early-bird diners as well since many were regulars. From the business perspective, filling tables at a time when they would otherwise go empty was smart. It was a win-win situation, and I still hated it.
My aunts? They certainly never minded. They teased me about being a snob who thought food tasted better after 7 p.m. "It will be the same food if we came at 7:30," insisted one aunt. Her sister would chime in, "just more expensive then." I mumbled in protest futilely. They'd beam at each other and tsk-tsk me.
Of course they were right about all of it. The early-bird special was a good deal -- but it still hasn't shaken off the stigma of being the meal of choice of senior citizens.
I suspect that too many people my age were introduced to the concept in Florida as children visiting their grandparents. They would drag us from the beach to get cleaned up and go to dinner in what felt like the middle of the afternoon. No matter what we ordered, some of it would be saved and brought home to be eaten later "in case you get hungry." Often Grandma would wrap up the dinner rolls in tin foil she brought from home.
Will early-bird specials die with the current crop of 80-year-olds? Will they have a future as we snobby boomers move up the age ladder? Even in retirement, boomers may be less concerned with saving money than their post-Depression/post-WWII relatives.
Paul Freedman, a history professor at Yale University and author of the upcoming book, "Ten Restaurants That Changed America," predicts that baby boomers will most certainly shun "anything using the term or even hinting at early-bird specials." He says they are too closely associated with unfavorable memories of their parents in decline.
And will happy hours replace them?
"Happy Hours suffer from no such stigma," he said, "but are not exactly meals." He added: "And there would have to be a well-understood distinction between happy hours for young adults networking or looking for companionship on the one hand, and older people nursing their draft beers or whatever on the other."
Or maybe the real boomer frontier on the dining-out front won't be based on the time we eat dinner. Maybe we'll all just flock to whatever restaurants don't have a problem with ambient noise that interferes with our conversations and maybe they'll even provide enough lighting for us to actually read the menu without using the flashlight feature on our phones.
That, my friends, would be better than eating dinner in the middle of the afternoon.
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