Thank You for Dining with Me

As a 20-plus year resident of Norfolk, I’ve orbited the cycle of arriving as a stranger, ultimately meeting and knowing lots of folks from a variety of walks of life, being invited to house parties pretty regularly, and then once again becoming a relative stranger.

Thank You for Dining with Me
Dave at Commune | Sun., April 22, 2018 | Although he never lived in Norfolk — and, in fact, resides in San Diego — I've seen him more frequently than many who do live here. I always appreciated that effort and his making the most of the nature of his employment. Technically, this was one of a series of test images that preceded the official start of the project, but I am extremely fond of this photo and its inclusion was a necessity.

“Thank You for Dining with Me” began as a simpler and shorter project than it soon became.

Steve at Hoyt's | Sat., April 28, 2018 | This was from the first roll of film I shot for this project, and was part of the inspiration to carry on with it. The sense of space and conversational distance are well-represented, which, combined with the eye contact, makes it feel extremely personal. The tonality and colors of film are present here in a pleasing way.

Much of the photography in which I’d generally engaged as a resident of Hampton Roads centered around public events and private parties, and to a lesser extent, travel elsewhere. However, I attend far fewer public events than I once did and, as a 20-plus year resident of Norfolk, I’ve orbited completely the cycle of arriving as a stranger, ultimately meeting and knowing lots of folks from a variety of walks of life, being invited to house parties pretty regularly, and then once again becoming a relative stranger.

Donnie in his Steel Spade Gelato truck parked outside of Hoyt's | Sat., April 28, 2018

Years ago, a friend prone to a touch of good-natured hyperbole dubbed me the “mayor of Ghent,” which was amusing, if a tad (make that “a lot”) exaggerated, but to any extent there was truth to it, I left office several years ago.

Tom at LeGrand Kitchen | Thurs., May 10, 2018

As I’ve said to a handful of people, including a couple of whom who’ve found the concept personally resonant, “it’s strange to become a stranger in a place you haven’t left.” But as folks I knew, socialized with, and adored left the area to pursue education or jobs elsewhere; departed Hampton Roads just as they’d arrived (because the Navy told them to); got into relationships or had children; aged out of late-night excursions at clubs and bars; or simply fell in love with new interests and hobbies that prompted them to allocate their time differently, that is indeed what I found had transpired.

Dad and Mom at home | Sun., May 13, 2018 | These are my original dining companions and the only people who have ever simply always had my back. This is a Mother's Day lunch at the home where I grew up, and at the table where most of the family meals I've ever eaten were consumed. I dearly love this photo and the sweet souls who are in it.

Of course, none of this happens immediately; it happens bit by bit, person by person, move by move. Still, there can arrive a moment when the accumulated weight of these losses suddenly imparts you with the realization of what’s occurred, and the effects of the losses are exponential in their impact, not additive.

Amanda and Brit at Commune | Sat., May 19, 2018 | During the year this project was ongoing, I enjoyed more personal time with these two than I did with most locals. I originally met Brit back in my cafe days, hanging out at Elliott's Fair Grounds. I met Amanda at some point after these two got together, and since then, we have shared an innumerable quantity of foodie-related conversations.

Truly, I’ve been fortunate to know quite a number of lovely people in Hampton Roads, and while I felt keenly each one’s departure — though some much more intensely than others — eventually the critical mass of loss can leave one feeling like an island. This, though, I know is not a burden unique to me, as I’ve had several conversations in the past year or so with folks who, like me, once had considerable social outlets that have now dwindled. Relative to me, these folks have been younger, older, gay, straight, single, and coupled. Like me, these people are generally not church-goers, did not find their tribe at work (with some working remotely, for themselves, etc.), and do not necessarily have hobbies of the sort that lend themselves to repeated contact with the same group of folks. While I do not believe these factors account for the entirety of the explanation, perhaps they explain some of why folks who’d rather not live as loners nonetheless wind up spending much of their time as such.

David and Tom at Streats | Sat., June 30, 2018 | This was after I'd been sweating at Hampton Roads Pride for hours. I hadn't seen these two there, so I proposed a get-together. They're the locals with whom I most frequently shared meals, though with their busy lives, there were never as many as I'd have preferred. After a long number of years here, they recently moved out of the area.

Whatever the root cause, there seem to be quite a few folks who, at least sometimes, feel adrift and desirous of social interactions that have otherwise been escaping them. Indeed, I read with great interest a couple of articles in the Virginian-Pilot about the closing of the Norfolk outpost of Nordstrom. One article focused on the Nordstrom Cafe, and quite a few of the words were chronicling the desire of some of the customers to say farewell to employees they’d seen for years who’d brightened their days or with whom they’d shared moments now and again. Likewise, another article similarly mentioned customers visiting the department store to say goodbye to some of those on the retail side who’d worked the floor. Surely, some of these customers wanted to say goodbye because the interactions with the employees had made them feel much less like strangers than perhaps was so in other areas of their lives.

Nick at LeGrand Kitchen | Sat., July 14, 2018 | LeGrand has long been unique amongst Norfolk restaurants. The layout is such that folks who are normally back of the house are right out in front, which means that not only can you see your food being prepared, you can also become acquainted with the folks carrying out that important work of creating deliciousness.
Joey at LeGrand Kitchen | Sat., July 14, 2018
Steve and Nick at LeGrand Kitchen | Sat., July 14, 2018
Nick at LeGrand Kitchen | Sat., July 14, 2018 | This photo and those immediately preceding it were from a special night. To celebrate four years in business, original and early kitchen staff were brought back for one night only. It was super-busy, and I was delighted to be able to attend. The vibes were as they always had been, and it was nice to return to that. Nick was always an excellent chef and a memorable personality.

With respect to my own dining out excursions, I’ve long said that they’ve helped keep me sane. While I do very much believe that food well-prepared and attractively presented is a form of art, and while my enthusiasm for that is sometimes part of the motivation to pursue a dish or special I’ve seen posted online, having a meal at a restaurant also serves as a reasonable opportunity to leave the house, change the scenery, and engage in social interaction that I wouldn’t otherwise have. The vast majority of the time, I bop out of the house solo, spur of the moment, when either I really need to get out, or I’ve seen a special that’s sufficiently appetizing to entice me. While there are dining venues to which I would not venture sans company, over the years, I’ve generally found myself comfortable having a meal solo at any place that has a bar and serves food there. Having said that, there are certainly places where solo dining is more often seen than others, though I would not consider it a frequent sight locally, versus in a larger city where, say, more folks might be traveling for business.

Cheryl at LeGrand Kitchen | Thurs., July 19, 2018 | Ever-luminous and a Norfolk staple who's always brimming with stories and news, this was a rare moment of one-on-one time with an individual whom I used to see frequently.

Given these parameters, I weight the vibe from the staff more heavily than might others. And I have certainly been a repeat diner, making allowances for food that was maybe not quite marvelous, if the staff was particularly welcoming, just as I have also been disinclined to return to places turning out great food when the vibe of the place was off for me, either as a function of the chemistry with the staff, the nature of the customer base, the layout of the space or interior design, or some other aspect.

Margaret at Riverview Village Days | Sun., July 29, 2018 | I broke the rules for this one. She is no longer in the restaurant industry, but I knew her from her years at Toast. She does, however, now help grow the food that we eat, so I didn't break the rules but so much, I suppose.

In any event, because of the extent to which I value interactions with the staff of restaurants and related places, I’m glad this project expanded. Initially, I had decided that the official start of it would be Dining Out for Life 2018 and that I would photograph for a few months those who literally shared a table with me, which is to say friends and acquaintances. I’d decided that the project would wrap after a few months — by the time we arrived at fall, or at least winter. However, I fairly quickly realized I probably wouldn’t have photographed that many folks in that timeframe, and decided that I should expand the scope and extend the timeline. This expansion of scope was due to the realization that quite a few restaurant staff or folks in related hospitality businesses in essence shared a table or meal with me, though not literally. So, I decided that the photographic window for the project would close April 25, 2019, a year after Dining Out for Life 2018.

Stefan at Toast | Thurs., August 9, 2018 | Now probably the longest-serving front of house employee at Toast, he definitely knows my name, drink, and food preferences. Also pay attention to Christopher Revels sitting at the bar in the background. That's important for the next photo.

Frankly, I had wanted to photograph restaurant/hospitality staff for quite some time, because I have so valued those interactions. Indeed, the first time I can remember conceiving of such a project was when Donnie was still at Strawberry Fields. There were instances I would come in and, if there were no other customers, we would occasionally engage in real-deal moments of conversation and I’d hear vignettes from his life I wouldn’t otherwise have known. And if I wound up stopping by there after having had a couple of drinks at a bar, my own candor would increase.

Kiley at Toast | Thurs., August 9, 2018 | There was never any intention or provision to include a photo of myself in this project. Even if I'd wanted to, had I asked someone to take the photo, the dynamic would've shifted. However, artist Christopher Revels asked if he could use my camera. With it, he made two photos; this is one of them. He did not know what my project was about, and thus that is information that could not have colored his viewpoint. So, this was totally organic. And I can't imagine a photo with a composition more appropriate than this as relates to a depiction of me that's pertinent to this project. In fact, it was so pertinent I decided to include it. Much appreciation to him for making use of his skillful eye.

In a world with a paucity of serious conversational exchanges between people who don’t necessarily spend much time together, I found it refreshing, and it connected me with other moments I’d had with, say, baristas at local coffee places back when I used to frequent cafes. I always appreciated those who shared with me significant moments of realness from their lives, and that they listened to mine, even if our moments together were relatively infrequent and brief.

Scottie at Strawberry Fields | Wed., September 26, 2018 | He was formerly back of house at Toast, and I became much better acquainted with him after he began at Strawberry Fields. To the extent my tradition of tipsy gelato-purchasing continues, it largely continues with him and moments of realness similar to those described elsewhere in this post.

Even today, a couple of years removed from Donnie’s time at Strawberry Fields, if I have drinks on the weekend in Ghent, my thoughts tend to turn to gelato there, as it had become somewhat of a tipsy tradition for me.

Greg at Toast, staffing one of his Mr. McGregor's Cocktail Shed pop-ups | Sat., September 29, 2018 | As with many things in the restaurant world, change is constant. He now works at TCCP Roastery, though is still doing his cocktail pop-ups, including at Toast.

Of course, I have met and known many wonderful people who’ve worked in restaurants over the years. Obviously, for this project, I could photograph only those who are still in the area and still in the industry, but one also can’t forget those who once fit that criteria. No Frill was a source of many of them. Nikki was always such a lovely light of laughter and energy. Though I usually sat at the bar and she never worked the bar, she would nonetheless stop and chat. Joey and Mike were also memorable names and faces among many who worked there for years and years; each time I’ve seen Mike around and about in the years since, we’ve had a nice chat. Likewise, Press 626 featured the Lindsays (the owner — who’s still around — and a server who moved out of the area), Landon, and at least one other gay man whose name escapes me, but who was always much kinder to me than I typically anticipate from gay dudes who are that fetching.

Larry at Streats | Fri., October 12, 2018 | Here, he's making an Orange Blossom, as he has so many times for me. He remembers the names and drinks of so many customers, is frequently at the ready with a story, and tries to go the extra mile when he can (like helping me find a seat when the bar is crowded).

And of course, there was Lawrence of Toast, who had such an ideal personality for interacting with guests at the bar, perpetually lively and ready with some moment of conversation.

Corey at Streats | Fri., October 12, 2018 | As a solo guest at a bar, one is occasionally sufficiently lucky to engage in conversations with other customers that flow as well as, or are as interesting as, those that might transpire with a friend one arranged to meet up with there. Corey is an example of a customer such as that.

Some of these folks I still know in a virtual sense as they’ve become Instagram and/or Facebook connections. Others live on only in my memory. However, for “Thank You for Dining With Me,” I did make a diligent effort to include all current restaurant/hospitality staff with whom I’ve interacted a number of times over the course of multiple years, and who are still active in the industry locally at a place known to me. I cannot say that I got to everyone, inasmuch as sometimes they were there and my camera was not, or they were really too busy for it to have been appropriate to have asked for a photo.

Alan at Press 626 | Sun., October 14, 2018 | Many who dine out around Norfolk know Alan. At one time or another, he's held down the fort at quite a few noteworthy eateries.

Speaking of having a camera with me… I shot this project on film, not because film is “better” than digital, but for several other reasons. One is that I felt that using different equipment might reinvigorate my desire to photograph. I also felt that perhaps the novelty of film would make folks more likely to say yes to being photographed, particularly anyone who might be leery of being photographed and having that image potentially wind up immediately on social media. I also felt that using a medium that had an actual cost attached to it and no ability to immediately review what one had just shot might make me slow down a bit and be more deliberative, in a way counter to what the duo of digital photography and social media so often are about. Given the displeasure I was feeling (and continue to feel) about much of social media, something counter to that seemed a good thing.

Jim and Bill at Crackers | Sat., November 17, 2018 | Of locals who are still local, Bill is the person who's known me the longest, and arguably, at this point, the best. Sometimes, he can tell me stories about my life that I scarcely remember. One of the ways you get to know people that well is by talking, and when one is with Bill, conversation is the focus. He need not be amused by games, movies, etc., and I appreciate that so much about him.

I had also read or heard a comment about film that resonated with me, which was that the frame of film in the camera that recorded the scene had actually been present in that moment. In essence, one could hold in one’s hand a tangible artifact from that slice of time. And that object that had been present in that slice of time is rather immutable after development — assuming proper storage and handling — a sense of permanence that appealed to me quite intensely in a world that sociopolitically, climactically, and otherwise has felt as if it’s been spinning out of control.

Jay and Bryan at Clementine's | Thurs., November 29, 2018 | Speaking of conversation and conversationalists, these two are a treat. I always appreciate it when they brave the HRBT and make the trek down from the Peninsula.

Further, thinking back to when I shot film as a kid and young adult, not for the sake of novelty but because there were no other options to capture images, I recollected the pleasure of anticipation and discovery associated with wondering how shots turned out, yet having to wait to finish the roll, sending it away for development, and then — back then — receiving in the mail prints that sometimes revealed moments one had forgotten one had captured.

Greg at Toast, staffing one of his Mr. McGregor's Cocktail Shed pop-ups | Fri., December 21, 2018

And in the context of the project, I liked the idea of having an entire roll of film comprised of images of people for whom I had a fondness, because although I usually value my people photographs most of all, perhaps never had I, over an extended period of time, captured a variety of folks in candid-portrait sorts of looks that occupied all the frames on a roll of film.

Rob at LeGrand Kitchen | Wed., March 27, 2019 | Rob always has a very relaxed presence at LeGrand, anticipates where you want to sit, strikes up a conversation, and edits together some nifty IG videos (and stars in some, too).

All images were shot on Kodak Ultra Max 400, which is the current version of the film I shot when I was younger. After a lot of consideration and review of images online, I decided to go with that, instead of Portra, arguably the gold standard of color negative film these days, because I do really prefer the color and contrast of Ultra Max to Portra, though I sure wouldn’t have minded having Portra’s much finer grain structure.

Megan at LeGrand Kitchen | Wed., April 3, 2019 | Honestly, I feel like this photo says it all. She's a super-sweet person who gives sharp advice about food (and tells you she doesn't know if she doesn't know), gives a great hug, and is apparently a dynamo with boundless energy who manages to keep a big family going along with work and everything else.

Images were captured with a variety of cameras: the Nikon F4s, F5, and F100, which were fitted with a Nikkor 28-105mm 3.5-4.5 D zoom lens. More often than not, the lens was set at 28mm.

James at Toast | Sat., April 6, 2019 | I got lucky with this one. James was formerly a long-term Toast employee who'd mostly moved on to endeavors in another field. But he happened to be working on this day that I happened to have a camera with me.

The approach and concept were simple. All images were to be captured from my seated position at the bar or a table, preferably with foreground inclusions that make a nod to that. If the person being photographed was a restaurant or hospitality employee, they were photographed from where they would normally be in the course of interacting with me. Friends seated at a table with me were also photographed where they sat.

For the most part, no one was posed and folks presented themselves as they wished. In a very few instances, I may have provided guidance if something was unflattering, and likewise, I did not use images I found unflattering.

Ben and Scott at Stockpot NFK | Wed., April 17, 2019 | I needed a photo sequence to capture the dynamism of these two, and I love that so much. I hadn't sat down with them in over a year, so I appreciated the deadline of this project kicking me into making a proposal, as I'd really felt from the beginning that they should be in it.

While I would like to have captured all of the images using only available light, that was not feasible in most instances, so various Nikon flashes were used. And it was direct flash, not bounced, because one of the things I had never really noticed or thought about is that many restaurants have ceilings that are high, not a neutral color, or both, rendering bounced flash impractical.

The film was processed and scanned by The Find Lab in Utah, and all images were adjusted by me in Lightroom for exposure, color, and contrast to greater or lesser degrees, as needed. A few images were cropped somewhat, and others had perspective corrections where I felt there was considerable room for improvement. (The latter two were related to matters of composition I perhaps could’ve handled better at the time of capture, while others were associated with the optical characteristics of the lens.)

David and Tom at Omar's Carriage House | Wed., April 24, 2019 | This would turn out to be the last time I sat down with the two of them, sans other guests, before they relocated to the desert southwest.

And I mentioned that I did not pose people. That’s in some measure because I do not think that that is my forte; indeed, posing people is a special skill. And that, like well-produced food, is an art. While I think I’m reasonably adept at recognizing a flattering or appealing scene or look, or one that is the converse of that, guiding someone into such a position is not where I have expertise. I say all of this to point out that I did not intend for these images to be, nor do I regard them as being, art so one shouldn’t conclude I’ve written a long post here because my opinion of the work eclipses reality. Having said that, I am extremely fond of these images, and think many of them are quite flattering.

Danielle and Michael at Saint Germain | Thurs., April 25, 2019 | "Thank You for Dining with Me" officially began with these folks during a Dining Out For Life meal at Leone's. Though those images do not appear in the project, it is only fitting that on the last day for which I could photograph for "Thank You," it sunsetted during a meal with these two for which proceeds were also donated in conjunction with Dining Out For Life.

I cannot tell you how much time went into photographing these fine folks, or editing the images, or writing these words, but I can say that I have looked many times at the resulting set of images, and they’ve made me happy or brought me a sense of joy. These were some of the loveliest moments of the year, and I feel that when I look at the photos.

I am grateful for the generosity of all who agreed to be photographed, which was almost everyone. Not a single person in the restaurant/hospitality field declined. However, one dining companion did not wish to be photographed, and another I chose not to photograph because I didn’t believe I would be able to do so within the parameters of the project and achieve a pleasing image.

One bonus of this project is that I temporarily became significantly more outgoing than I typically am as relates to issuing invitations. So, literally because of this project, I dined with some folks with whom I otherwise almost certainly wouldn’t have had an opportunity to share a meal.

And with that, I want to say thank you to the folks who said yes to an invitation I extended to dine with me, thank you to those who issued me an invitation to dine with them, and an extra-special thanks goes to those who both said yes to an invitation and also extended one to me.

And thank you all so very much for dining with me. I appreciate the company.

(Images presented in order of capture.)