ould there be a link between our society’s rampant anxiety, loneliness and polarization and the loss of shared meals? Some insist that’s a resounding “yes!” “Basically, every meal that you’re eating alone is a missed opportunity to connect with someone,” reported researcher Ayelet Fishbach of the University of Chicago. “And every meal that involves food sharing fully utilizes the opportunity to create that social bond. ”In fact, her research shows that team members sharing dishes negotiate decisions more quickly and efficiently than those who aren’t. Historians point to the “dinner table bargain” of 1790 when embattled founding fathers put their differences aside amidst a culinary spread. The result was a new capital city in Washington. Pensacola life coach Erin Kirk believes in the magic of breaking bread together. In fact, attending gatherings called “Love Dinner” where participants regularly dine together are assignments for her clients.“ ‘Love Dinner’ was born out of my need for connection with other humans– women in particular,” said Kirk, who launched the meetings in 2013 but only recently brought them to Pensacola. “I was lonely, tired of small talk and annoyed with ‘busy’ being the usual answer to ‘How are you?’
”REINVENTING THE DINNER BOND Societal shifts as well as remote work mean a lot of time alone. Yet everyone has to eat! So communing over dinner is a win-win feeding the body and soul. And as they do within families, regular dinner gatherings of friends require patience and acceptance. “Our lives are meant to be woven together, even with people we think are a little nuts. That fabric is not only interesting, but it’s useful for catching each other when we fall,” Kirk said. Partaking of a home-cooked meal around the table at home is an idyllic goal and many families make it a priority. But on weeknights particularly, that goal is sometimes unattainable due to time constraints. Pensacola retiree Brenda Basford remembers driving her now-grown children home after daycare and hearing the question, “What’s for dinner, Mom? ”Her response was often, “Whatever is on the right side of the road! ”Yet the essential part of dinner was intact: breaking bread and catching upon the day together as a family. Researchers say the emotional benefits of joining around a table together regularly to dine and converse are powerful for children as well as adults. Research reported in “The Atlantic” shows children who eat dinner with their parents five or more days a week are better students, have fewer problems with drugs and alcohol and are closer to their parents.
NORTHWEST FLORIDA’SHIDDEN GEMS So, if we are going to eat together outside the home – or pick up take out – where are some of the area’s favorite restaurants? The Gulf Coast isn’t short on eateries that fuse stellar food with a welcoming vibe. Earlier this year, Yelp named Taqueria El Asador on Davis Highway the third overall best restaurant in Florida for 2022. The family business launched in2014 behind the Shell gas station on Davis Highway south of Olive Road. Long lines are the norm at the restaurant featuring a humble location and authentic, affordable Mexican food. Taco Tuesdays and Chicken Wednesdays are draws, but it is rare not to encounter a line awaiting a taste of El Asador. For the downtown Pensacola crowd, the restaurant options are many. Fans rave about Aragon Cafe, the iconic Coffee Cup, Dwarf Chicken and Four Seasons. A little further west is another customer favorite, the historic Elbow Room.
In Gulf Breeze and Pensacola Beach, The Reef, Native Cafe, Lao Ocean, Casino Beach Bar & Grille and The Grand Marlin are favorites while north Santa Rosa County residents are drawn to Blackwater Bistro and Bar515.Patron and Pace resident Trish Kington likes the casual, friendly, community vibe and local entertainment at Bar 515.“I’ve had many menu items from tapas to full dinner entrees,” said Kington, who is especially fond of the Mediterranean Chicken and Center Cut Filet Mignon. Going Vegan? Check out End of the Line Cafe or Kingfisher. On the west side? Check out Crazy Horse or Fisherman’s Corner. Jenni Koontz thinks comfort when Crazy Horse and Fisherman’s Corner come to mind – both in the welcoming atmosphere and the food. “You can see locals and good friends and tourists alike,” she noted.
“Our lives are meant to be woven together, even with people we think are a little nuts. That fabric is not only interesting, but it’s useful for catching each other when we fall.”— Pensacola life coach Erin Krik
“YOU WANNA GO WHERE EVERYBODY KNOWS YOUR NAME” The Cheers theme song had a point. For many diners, a warm, welcoming environment may be as important as delicious food when choosing an eatery. And that’s the goal of the Four Seasons team, who make a point to greet customers individually. “We are dedicated first and fore most to customer service – making customers feel when they come in that they are like family,” said chef Charles Mielke, noting that the restaurant smokes its own meats and is known for its fried chicken. “We have hundreds of people come visit us on a monthly basis that we know by first name.”
Mielke’s wife, owner Kelly Greene, evolved the eatery from humble beginnings when years ago she rolled a cart of fruit, sandwiches and muffins through Seville Tower and the old Coastal Bank& Trust, earning the title of “the fruit and nut lady. ”Now she wears many hats at the bustling business, but her favorite by far is connecting with customers and doing her best to make their time at Four Seasons a highlight of their day.
“Life is so hectic and everybody has so much on their plate. You never know what somebody’s going through in life– if it’s a divorce or somebody died or if they’re having a happy moment, said Greene. “But sometimes people just look forward to that one little 30minutes or hour out of their day just to sit and have a good meal in their stomach before they have to go back to it. I clean bathrooms and do whatever, but my favorite part is making sure the customers are happy and that they’ve had a good meal in a clean environment.”