Welcome to For Your Consideration, a new series about things we love and love to do — and we’d like to give you permission to embrace your authentic self and love them too.
Restaurant shirts are basically the same as band shirts — spread the word.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a near-perfect memory for the meals I’ve eaten. I have a vague memory of seeing the Golden Gate Bridge on a family vacation to San Francisco when I was 14, but I can viscerally remember the snow crab legs I ate on a restaurant patio there. One of my favorite home videos ever is one of me trying calamari for the first time. An entire page of the scrapbook I made about my life in middle school is dedicated to photos of me and food. My sense of direction is horrendous, but in the years since I’ve moved to New York, I’ve mapped the city by the places I’ve eaten.
I will never understand the vitriolic attitude toward Instagram food pics. It seems to stem from the belief that food should be a private, solitary, isolated experience, that there’s something inherently vain or performative about posting meals. But the thing about a great meal is that you eat it and it’s gone. A photo can be a souvenir, a reminder of not only how it tasted but how you felt when you ate it, who you were with, why you were there.
Restaurants have actual souvenirs, too, and you shouldn’t sleep on them! At a certain point after college, I realized how much I loved to rep my favorite spots, to quite literally wear my regular status. A lot of restaurants and bars have them: t-shirts emblazoned in their logo or in a corny food joke, often hanging up behind the bar or high up by the entrance, sometimes gathering dust because there’s something outdated and tacky about restaurant merch, often associated with mid-tier restaurants. But fuck a fancy restaurant and their lack of wearable swag.
They’re rarely hip; the colors are jarring, the design rushed, the puns ridiculous. There are, of course, exceptions, like the awesome queer diner in Madison, Wisconsin that sells extremely cute shirts that I knew I would be buying before I even finished my brunch. Or the taphouse in Burlington, Vermont with a hoodie with a super clean tulip glass design on its front. Jeni’s Ice Cream consistently puts out the cutest shirts ever (and this retro travel bag that I 100% need).
Just like more and more restaurants now cater to Instagram with stunt dishes, some restaurants are trying to put out Instagram-ready swag for maximum exposure — but tbh as cute as some of these shirts are, I like the ugly ones more, like the blindingly lime green shirt from a Brooklyn taco truck that was given to my girlfriend for free because she ordered late-night veggie burritos from them so often over the course of three years. Or the one with a somewhat terrifying anthropomorphic pickle that my mom got me from a bar we went to in Hawaii. Give me those horrendous typefaces and clunky logos. Do I have a tacky t-shirt from the bar in Adams Morgan where my second secret college girlfriend broke up with me for the second time? You better believe it! And I’ve held onto a t-shirt from high school that barely fits anymore from the neighborhood coffee shop in Nashville I’ve been going to for nearly a decade.
We buy merch at concerts even though we can get similar products for less online because we want to remember the evening. We want something more than a photo or a video — something we can literally wear on our body and touch and hold. No matter how many times I do it, eating at restaurants never ceases to feel special to me, to spark something in me that reminds me of when I would do it with my family for special occasions growing up. Or when I started going to restaurants alone during college, a much different but still special feeling.
I have non-wearable merch, too, like mugs and koozies and pint glasses. But there’s something extra special about this collection of mostly not-cute shirts from the places I’ve eaten and drank and been on dates and cried at. I have my mental map of everywhere I’ve ever eaten, but the shirts are my wearable memory, something that lasts beyond the food eaten but also isn’t just about the food but about the experience, about my relationship with that time and place.