I will always choose the ambiance of a Chili’s restaurant in any small town or large city, over any other restaurant. People will swear by the small locally operated restaurants that make one good dish. People will say “it’s a special night you better take her somewhere expensive.” That expensive restaurant will have one dish that my picky eater girlfriend will even consider ordering to take maybe three bites out of. No, Chili’s is a go to date night restaurant.
My culinary school colleagues always think I’m joking when I recommend Chili’s as their Valentine’s Day option. Friends and family will come to me asking for food recommendations thinking that as someone studying food, I am going to have the best food advice they’ve ever heard. I can see their jaws drop to the floor when the first restaurant out of my mouth is the chain restaurant that serves mediocre Americanized Mexican food.
As a little girl who grew up average middle class, chain restaurants were the family go to. We spent many birthdays at the big, round, smooth tables of Outback Steakhouse. Every time my grandma would drive up from the Bronx to go to Walmart, we took the short ride to the TGI Fridays down the road. Chili’s was the place I had my first date.
As a middle child, I never got to spend time with just my dad alone. He worked every day of the week and would come home late. On weekends, he wanted to be with me and my siblings. My sister was two years older than me, and my brother was 9 years younger. There was no chance that I would ever get a parent to myself.
Ever since I was in kindergarten, there was an annual daddy-daughter dance hosted by my school. All my friends were only children or had brothers. I was the only little girl who had to share their dad with an older sister. My sister was 12 when I was in fourth grade. That year she decided she was too old to go to a dance with her dad and little sister. Although I could tell that broke my dad’s heart, I had never been more excited. I was, for one night only, an only child.
My dad made that year extra special. I think that change in plans was more for his benefit than mine, but either way I was overjoyed. I can remember walking into the Chili’s down the road from my school as the only little girl holding my dad’s hand. The waitress asked, “how many?” and my dad said, “table for two.” I had never heard that phrase before. I had heard table for four, or table for five my whole life. This was going to be the best night ever.
We only got dessert, but that was the best dessert I ever eaten. The hot molten lava cake with vanilla ice cream on top was my dad’s favorite. He dug into the dessert. “Julia, you better eat before I eat the whole thing.” I rushed to stuff that huge chocolate cake into my mouth because I knew he wasn’t lying; he would eat the whole thing. Being able to share a private dessert with my dad was the highlight of my young middle child's life.
This is the first date I had ever been on. Alone in the hometown Chili’s that was almost always empty with just me and my dad. I knew I would remember this forever. Chili’s will come to hold a lot of firsts for me, some very scary firsts.
Chili’s does not care if you are hiding a huge secret from your whole family. They don’t care if everyone in school is asking you questions you don’t know how to answer yet. They don’t care if you fell for your high school best friend, who was a girl too. Chili’s will open their doors to you. They will still serve you the same food they have always been, even though you feel completely different inside.
My senior year of high school, I spent the year slowly falling in love with my girl best friend. At a small-town catholic school, this doesn’t seem plausible. Everyone in the school was asking us if we were hiding something from them. How do I answer the questions of others when I cannot even admit this to myself?
How does one go on a date when they are so deep in a closeted relationship? They go to Chili’s! Small-town catholic folks will swear to the small expensive restaurants that are closer to the cities. If I was really going to go on a date incognito, my best bet was to go to the Chili’s down the street from the public school.
I remember being nervous. I knew this wasn’t going to be easy. We had to drive the opposite direction of where our houses were. Walking into the restaurant, I couldn’t even hold her hand. I had to watch as she walked in front of me wearing my favorite light blue sweatshirt and new grey sweatpants. I told the waitress table for two and wondered if she suspected we were on a date. I looked around to confirm that there were no other kids from our school lurking in the dining room. It was all clear.
“How do you feel about this?” I said to her as I reached my hand under the table to hold hers secretly. “This is exactly where I want to be with you”, she replied, grabbing my fingers because that’s all she could reach. I knew that this was going to be okay. We spent hours there. We ate cheesy chicken pasta, steak quesadillas, chips and salsa, and the famous molten lava cake. It was vanilla cake this time, something a little different. When the waitress came over and asked if we wanted to join the rewards club, we looked at each other and told her to sign us up! This was going to be our spot. This is where we could be our different selves but still feel the same.
We have been dating for four years. They weren’t always easy years but knowing we had a little something to look back on for some normalcy was comforting. My parents found out about six months into the relationship. They weren’t happy about the secret but weren’t upset with the relationship. Her siblings found out early on as well. It wasn’t hard to tell by the way we acted with each other. Her mom, on the other hand didn’t know for a long time. It took three years before we both built up the courage to tell her mom. Even then, we didn’t end up doing it. On a Wednesday night in the middle of the school week we got a call from her younger sister: “Mom is not happy with this.” What could she possibly be talking about? “I finally told her you guys are dating, and she flipped out.” She didn’t talk to us for days.
My girlfriend and I had been living together for almost a year. We adopted a bunny together and had a joint bank account. We honestly didn’t think her mom had no idea. For my girlfriend who talks to her mom all day long every single day those couple days of not talking were excruciating.
About a month later, I was finally going to see her mom for the first time after the news broke. She invited us to come help her set up the family cabin. I was nervous. My hands were shaking the whole two-hour drive to where we were meeting her. After about an hour of agony, and awkward silences we left and to get some food. She said to us, “We can go to Panera, TGI Friday’s, Chili’s, or pizza.” With enthusiasm, we looked at each other and exclaimed in agreement, “Chili’s!”
The drive there might’ve felt long, but the second we walked into the dimly lit room with red booths and green menus on the table it felt peaceful. Sliding into the booth, her mom chose to sit next to me. Margaritas and chips with salsa were the first two orders that the table made collectively. We sat, and we talked for a while. Finally, completely out as a couple in public.
Everyone in our life that mattered to us finally knew. Sitting in the dining room drinking watered down bland margaritas, we were finally able to be the couple I had always wanted to be. I could hold her hand as we walked to the door. I didn’t have to wonder if people around us would question if we were dating. I could reach over the table and grab her hand and not break my back to touch her fingers.
We were out.
I will not sit here and tell you that the mediocre “Mexican” food that Chili’s serves is the best quesadilla you’ll find around. I wouldn’t recommend the margaritas or the cheesy chicken pasta they serve. I wouldn’t even say that the molten lava cake dessert is a good cake with its plain vanilla ice cream on top. But I will say that Chili’s is the best place for a date night.
Chili’s doesn’t care who you are. They don’t care if you are a middle child, gay, straight, a liar or a nervous “in-law.” They just want to treat you like a human being. They just want to give you the night you have always dreamed of.
The author’s name is Julia Birmingham. She is graduating from the Culinary Institute of America where she took a course on food writing. The story Coming Out Chili’s is a memoir to the topic of “life in chains.” The story is a true story about how Chili’s helped her to grow as a person and was always a “safe haven” to her.