The most elegant meal I’ve ever eaten didn’t leave the restaurant with me.
It was 1994 and Chris and I were in Monterey, California for the weekend to celebrate his 26th birthday. We’d been married for two years at that point and had just started doing very sophisticated things like buying travel-sized containers and making hotel reservations in advance. After all, we were both successful young professionals with a combined annual income of nearly $42,000, and I had my very own cubicle on the 10th floor of the Playboy building on Sunset Boulevard. (Note: I worked for a media buying agency, not Playboy, but I saw Pamela Anderson on the elevator often enough to tell everyone we were close personal friends.)
We left our rental house in Sherman Oaks early that Saturday morning and made the five-hour drive up the coast in our Nissan Maxima, blasting Wham! CDs when Chris would let me and Bachman Turner Overdrive when he wouldn’t. Once we got to town, we checked into the Holiday Inn Express—“Yes, Monique, you should have a room for Aarons because I called your 1-800 number last week like a big person?”—then we immediately headed to the area’s biggest attraction: The Monterey Bay Aquarium. We were still seven years away from having kids, so wandering around a crowded fish zoo was a big novelty then. Now, of course, it’s right next to “School Carnival Vomit Patrol” on our “Activities Requiring Advance Medication” list.
After a couple of hours spent marveling at sea life, we found ourselves in the aquarium’s special exhibition. An exhibition called “Mating Games: Reproduction and Survival in the Aquatic World.” Or, put another way, “Fishies Be Gettin’ Some.” I don’t remember exactly what was in the exhibit, but I know it included marine life sperm and a lot of sex, spawn and mating talk. But mostly, it included fish eggs. Like, a lot of fish eggs—videos, pictures, drawings, interpretive dance—-there was nothing left to the imagination with the fish eggs and exactly how the eggs were ejected from their mommies. It was like Masters and Johnson’s Deep Sea Ovary Adventure or something. Glistening, glistening fish eggs everywhere.
After the aquarium, we went back to the hotel and got dressed up for dinner, then we stopped at the Wine ‘n Cheese Happy Hour in the lobby. Yes, we were a terribly sophisticated twosome, but not so much that we’d ever turn down free booze and appetizers from a Holiday Inn. Our parents had raised us right. (Plus, the cheese cubes were on toothpicks, which I can never resist because after you eat the cheese, you can poke people in the ribs and yell, “Ka-Pow! Cheese shank!”)
Slightly tipsy from the happy hour, we then made our way over to the nicest restaurant in town where we planned to celebrate Chris’ birthday in very romantic fashion. The restaurant was located on Monterey’s famous Cannery Row. “You know, from the Steinbeck book?” I’d said to Chris when we first talked about the trip. “Oh, my god, haven’t you ever read that novel?”
He hadn’t. And it became glaringly obvious that I actually hadn’t read it, either, after the restaurant told us we had an hour-long wait and we spent that hour chugging pints of beer and playing pool in a nearby bar. “But wha I don’t get,” I was soon slurring, while also brandishing my pool cue like a 50’s gang member, “Wha I don’t get ish where all da canaries are? You’d think you’d see at least one damn CANARY flyin’ around on CANNERY ROW, right? But guess wha? No birdies. No fea-thurrrrs. And thas? A RIP JOB, City of Monray! You should be a shame! ASHAME. What would Jim Schtinebeck say?”
“He’d say ‘chirp,’” Chris whispered into the side pocket of the pool table. “Thas what Jim say. Ch-urp.”
And on that lovely three-sheets-to-the-wind note, we set off for the most fancy dinner of our young lives.
Now, I have to say that I don’t know if we’d still find the restaurant as elegant as we did 20 years ago, but as soon as we stepped in the dining room that night, we saw that it was unlike any place we’d ever eaten before. I mean, El Pollo Loco didn’t have velvet drapes, a strolling violinist and a maître d’, much less a sommelier who nicely asked about our wine preferences and didn’t roll her eyes when I answered, “Anything but Bartles & Jaymes, my good lady!” It was a beautiful room full of well-dressed older people, and we both knew that we had to try our best to act like sober grown-ups. And that we did.
Until the food arrived.
It’s important to note that Chris and I aren’t huge fans of seafood. We don’t eat fish often and can’t stand sushi. But since we were in Monterey, we wanted to order the local specialty and, according to our waiter, that night it was shrimp caught off the coast. Fine, we can handle shrimp, we thought, that’s easy. And as soon as my entree arrived, I dug in. (Apparently of the alcohol swirling in my stomach had made me quite ravenous.) It was only after I’d shoveled at least five forkfuls of food into my mouth that I noticed Chris wasn’t eating his meal.
“What’s wrong?” I asked, also noticing that he looked a little green.
“Didn’t you hear what the waiter said?” he hissed.
“Yes,” I hissed back, then swallowed the big hunk of food in my mouth so I could continue. “He said that these were female shrimp they caught off the coast and that they’re just….laden…with… eggs.”
I then looked down at my plate in sheer panic and saw that it was covered in shrimp—and dark glistening shrimp eggs. Everywhere. And to me, at that moment, they weren’t caviar or roe or what many people consider to be a rare delicacy. No, all they were to me at that moment were the eggs I’d just seen shooting out of a fish’s vagina in the aquarium’s reproduction exhibit. And now, those eggs were in my stomach.
Or at least they were until I grabbed the white linen napkin on my lap, stuck it over my mouth and vomited up eggs, shrimp, wine, beer and cheese cubes as politely and discreetly as I could. Which is to say “not very.” Chris later remarked that I sounded like a 600 lb. Sea Lion regurgitating a seagull, only not as melodic.
Once my hurling was done, I composed myself, looked at my horrified husband, looked at the well-heeled patrons surrounding us, and politely said, “Escuse, sweetie, but I goin’ powder my nose now.”
Then I stood up and made my way through the entire restaurant with the classic “I’m drunk, but I’m pretending I’m not drunk, but you can all tell I’m drunk because I’m wobbling from side to side like WC Fields in a skirt from The Limited” 45-degree angle walk. While still holding onto my little package of puke eggs, of course. Once I reached the Ladies Room, I threw the disgusting mess into the garbage can and rinsed out my mouth. I knew this was an awful thing to have done on Chris’ special night, so I pulled myself together as much as I could and hoped I could still salvage our romantic dinner. It was his birthday, for god’s sake. I had to make it nice.
Ready to make a fresh start, I opened the bathroom door and headed into the dining room. As I rounded the corner, I heard the sound of men singing the happy birthday song, accompanied by a violin. “How cute,” I thought, “Chris has a birthday twin!” It was only after I got closer to our table that I remembered I’d quietly told the maître d’ that it was Chris’ birthday when we first got there and he promised they’d serenade him. Which, surprise! five of them were now grandly doing at our table—while Chris sat there alone, burping up cheap beer and trying his damnedest to not look at the fish eggs on his plate.
If I hadn’t just used my last toothpick to remove an egg from my molars, I would have totally cheese shanked myself at that moment.
Instead, I walked back to the table, watched Chris gobble up the chocolate cake they’d given him gratis, then pulled out my credit card and paid our $120 dinner bill. Of course, I knew half of that $120 was resting in a shallow grave in the Ladies Room garbage can, but I didn’t even consider disputing the charge. Truth be told, I was a little worried they’d make me reimburse them for what I did to their linen napkin. That thing probably needed to be doused in gasoline and lit on fire.
A few minutes later, we finally put ourselves out of our misery and left the restaurant, slowly strolling back to the hotel. We were both exhausted, hungry and much, much worse for the wear. I apologized profusely to Chris for ruining his special night, but mostly, I apologized for spending so much money. We really weren’t fancy restaurant people after all, I told him sadly. At least I wasn’t.
“It’s okay,” he said, grabbing my hand. and squeezing it. “Because breakfast at the Holiday Inn Express is free. I just want you to promise me one thing.”
“Anything,” I answered, knowing then, as I do know, how lucky I am to be married to him. “I promise you anything. What is it?”
“That tomorrow at breakfast? You will not order the fucking eggs.”
And because I was so very, very sophisticated, I made sure I didn’t.
That’s my worst date story to celebrate Valentine’s Day–yay!–and just to keep you in the mood, here are a few more tales of romantic disaster from some of my funny friends: