Trying out a new place to eat can be fraught with indecision and worry. What if I don’t understand the menu? What if I order the wrong thing? What if my date hates it?
Dining clubs like Adventurous Palates can help.
With no dues or meetings, this club's goal is simply to explore and enjoy Charlotte’s restaurants.
About a dozen of the group’s members met up recently at Gyu-Kaku, a new Japanese BBQ restaurant.
Organizer Brant Aycock had worked out the logistics in advance and staff had booked a private room for the group. With no program, no announcements, and no assigned seats you just sit down and order.
It can be hard to make small talk at a party with strangers but that's not a problem with this crew. The menu was massive with endless combinations of meats and other ingredients that diners can order prepared from the kitchen, or cook on round grills recessed into the center of each table. This of course required extensive discussion.
“If I order the chili shrimp shumai will you have some?”
“Is the kimchi really spicy? It’s been a long time since I had bibimbap.” (There are a number of Korean dishes on the menu.)
“I'm going to have the shishito peppers.” The server warned, “About one in eight are really hot.”
Plates began arriving and immediately we passed them around. Fried calamari came from my right, then miso butter ramen from the left. “No thanks,” I said when offered a salad. I sampled no fewer than a dozen different dishes. Across the table someone draped slices of fatty toro beef onto the grill and the meat started to sizzle.
Sometimes there’s a sort of rhythm to a meal that gets going once everyone hits their stride after a certain amount of food and drink. We begin to create connections because we’re actually sharing not just food, but an experience.
Sitting in the opposite corner diagonally from Aycock meant having to holler my questions at him, so we followed up a few days later. He and his friend Stacey Henderson started Adventurous Palates in 2009. It now has over 400 members but only a small core group is active.
“We were looking for ways to explore different cultures through food, and in a fun, inclusive atmosphere,” he said. “It's been a very organic/viral process. We started out with our friends, but through social media, Facebook primarily, we've added new friends and regulars.”
Anyone in the group can suggest a restaurant and Aycock seeks out locally-owned places as often as possible. He dines at each one in advance and talks with the owners before announcing a meet up.
“Without exception every restaurant has been more than happy to work with us to make sure it's a great experience,” he said.
The uncertainties of the restaurant business can create surprises. “There are always going to be curveballs thrown at you when you manage something like this. We once had a Chinese restaurant on the schedule that was rumored to have a superb Szechuan ‘secret’ menu. Two days before the dinner the owners decided to scrap the Asian angle and became a seafood restaurant!”
On the night I attended Gyu-Kaku, I recognized a Facebook friend I’d never actually met in real life. Jennifer Moxley is a seasoned appreciator of good food but it was her first time dining with Adventurous Palates. I asked her afterward what appealed to her about it. It was the opportunity to learn about “our entrepreneur neighbors, the staff, and the people at the table who share their stories of travel and food and life," she said.
“We bond over food. It’s personal and intimate. And we have time to peek into someone else's world when sitting down and passing plates.”
That world of food is getting bigger and no one can be an expert on it all. In this group, “it’s okay not to know what to order,” said Aycock.
“We encourage questions and sharing the food, so even those who came with no prior knowledge can leave and say they had something they liked.”
And having separate checks assures that if I order an omelet I won’t have to pay for your lobster.
It doesn’t matter if the menu is ten pages long or scribbled on a blackboard, if the napkins are crisp linen or a roll of paper towels, if your drink arrives in a cocktail glass or a can, any time you eat with friends it can be an adventure.
Amy Rogers writes WFAEats, a fun adventure where we explore all things tasty and tackle the meatier side of the food sene in and around Charlotte.