Sunday, August 20, 2006

If That Ain't College...

Every once and a while, a country girl needs to break out of her country girl surroundings and plant herself in a new environment to gain a different perspective. So this weekend, I went back to college.

Well, actually, I only went back to Chapel Hill. But seeing as Chapel Hill is one of the quintessential college towns, it's close enough.

I have not been to Chapel Hill in just about 10 years. I believe the last time I was there was for dinner with my family after I graduated college in May 1997. And while some things change, much has not.

I did not give much thought as to what it would feel like to hang out in a college town as a 31 year old married woman because it never occured to me that it should feel different. But alas, it does.

Although a traffic jam on 85 delayed my arrival by about an hour, I eventually pulled into town, did a quick change, and Maggie and I drove to a wonderful dinner at Bin 54. I will tell you all, if you are ever in Chapel Hill - make it a point to stop here for dinner. It's delicious.

We started with foie gras with fig butter (sensational) and a cheese plate including a wonderfully creame St. Andre triple creme, an aged gouda (my absolute favorite) and a Point Reyes blue cheese that was not too tangy and not too sharp. This was followed by an excellent grilled bone in rib-eye, sinfully rich whipped yukon golds (ignore the fact that this might be the most overplayed side dish at fine dining establishments across the country right now) and a clever spin on creamed spinach: sauteed spinach topped with Ricotta Salata. The cheese gets warms and melts over the hot spinach, giving it a creamy texture and a nice flavor - but you don't feel like you are eating cream soaked greens. It's very delicate and very delicious. This was all washed down with a reasonably priced 1999 reserve Robert Sinsky Cabernet Sauvignon.

Despite the 3 long tables of 20 people in the middle of the room (a law firm appeared to be having some sort of end of the summer dinner for their summer associates), the atmosphere was quite lovely. The combination of the Craft style menu, the attentive service and thepleasant atmosphere made for an all together excellent dinner with no shades of college town anywhere near.

After dinner, a taxi dropped us off at West End Wine Bar on Franklin Street. Ah Franklin Street. Home to many a memory from my college days. Bar hopping. Shopping. The delicious artichoke spread at 411 West. I hoped that a night on Franklin Street would be where I got in touch with my inner sorority girl. Where I'd feel that rush of being young and carefree. Where for just a few hours, I could remember what it felt like 10 years ago when my life was truly just beginning and the sense of possibility was overwhelming.

But a civilized steakhouse and an upscale wine bar are not the places one goes to for those experiences. So I asked Maggie to take me some place where I would get carded.

That led us to The Top of the Hill, a second-story bar right in the middle of town. And sure enough, I was carded. Whether it's because I looked young enough to be under 21 (doubtful) or because it was the law (more likely), I grinned like a kid at Christmas and thanked the bouncer for flattering me so.

Of course, the warm fuzzy feeling didn't last long as we climbed the stairs and entered what appeared to be a keg party. Although a large bar in the center of the room served top shelf cocktails and bottled beer (by far superior to the standard kegs of Busch and Natty Light that I remember from college), everything else was as I remember those parties to be. Lots of young people drinking, smoking and flirting. Harmless. Fun. When you are 21. Not 31.

Surveying the crowded room (it was the first weekend back after a long summer), it was clear the students had a uniform. The boys wore tailored khaki shorts, khaki pants or blue jeans, brightly colored Polo shorts (lots of pink) or oxfords and sneakers or flip flops. The girls wore mini skirts (mainly denim), tube tops or tank tops and Rainbows, an uninspired choice in footwear that Maggie had warned me was extremely prevalant.

Maggie and I were certainly overdressed and out of place with our cute little dresses and heels. We looked older. We felt older. We escaped immediately.

Martini Bar across the street proved to be no better. A live band played 80's covers while a thong of people danced, drank and shouted to be heard over the din. The highlight of our brief time at Martini Bar came when a beared 2nd year med student approached us at the bar and asked us our favorite word or line I gave him apoplectic which he sadly didn't know the definition of). He then concocted an on-the-spot poem (after I told him what it meant) which was meant to impress (it didn't). He moved on after spotting my wedding ring and learning Maggie was his superior at the hospital.

Our last stop was Lucy's, which Maggie told me was all graudate students. I am not sure I saw much of a difference between these folks and the undergrads. The MBAs and lawyers in-training were as trashed as the undergrads, as loud, as boisterous and many seemed to be in search of someone to bring home at the end of the night. Maybe it's not about age. Maybe it's about being in school. And while we only stayed at Lucy's for one quick beer, my favorite part was when I complemented one guy on his orange shirt and he corrected me by telling me it was salmon.

After Lucy's, we walked to the corner and waited for our cab. While I'd had a fun night bar-hopping with a longtime friend, I hadn't felt 21 again. In fact, if anything, being surrounded by all those college kids made me truly feel like a 31 year old director of marketing for a hedge fund. Which is a good thing. Because that's who I am.

Our cab pulled up and as we got in, a group of 6 students ran across the street and asked if they could hitch a ride since their cab hadn't showed. We said sure - as long as we got dropped off first. As it turned out, that wasn't an issue as they were first year law students at Duke who had come to Chapel Hill for the night to party.

All piled into the minivan and heading home, the lone female in the group as asked Maggie and me where we went to school. We both smiled, had a quiet laugh and politely told her we weren't in school. We had graduated long ago.

And if that ain't college, I'll kiss your...


Rick said...

This pretty much sums up why I don't venture to Northgate during football season at A&M. I stick to the tailgate party - game - then the ride home. Damn it sucks getting old. : )