Joe pulls a sheet of paper out of his jacket pocket, unfolds it and smiles across the table at my husband and me. It’s an unspoken challenge, and we confidently accept.

We rattle off the names of restaurants, slowing down as we name 10, 12, 15 places. There are 20 on Joe’s typed list, one for each year we’ve celebrated our “anniversaries” together.

Joe’s wife, Erin, was my bridesmaid, and a year-and-two-weeks later I was hers. A year after that, the four of us toasted each other at the first of our anniversary dinners.

Tonight is dinner No. 21, and our official list-keeper Joe has recorded every single one in between.

In the early years of marriages, back in the 20th century, our dining picks were largely dictated by price. If a place was on the Entertainment card, it was in our budget. Drinks were a luxury, as were appetizers and desserts.

We now laugh as we recall the year that the maître d’ loaned Joe a jacket because the restaurant was fancier than we originally thought. In those years, we were often seated near the kitchen, the hostesses assuming we would not complain about the second-rate table locations.

Our reservation time was late and dining was leisurely. We had no baby sitters to pay and no early morning wake-up calls the next day. Many of those restaurants no longer exist; like our pre-parenting years, they have been replaced by something new, although the outline of what used to be is still faintly visible. Our anniversary dinners were just among the many Saturday evenings we spent together as couples in those days, yet it was the rare night out on the town.

We now reminisce about the years when parenthood required all of our attention, and our anniversary dinners were the only night of the year we saw each other without babies, toddlers and elementary schoolers in tow. Our reservation time was early and dining was brisk if not rushed; baby sitters are not cheap. We announced pregnancies, fretted about developmental milestones and marveled at how fast our families were growing.

Eventually, our eldest daughters became the baby sitters, and our dinners became relaxed once again. This is the only night of the year when we manage to double date, although we vow to change that as our nests empty. Some years, our dinners were a week late; some years, they were over a month after our anniversaries passed. But it is non-negotiable, and it is the one standing date we have held on to through the hectic years of parenting.

Only once have any of us missed our celebration. Even then, a pregnant Erin left her sick husband at home, and we dined as a trio.

We now choose restaurants with little regard for price, and we all order at least one drink and appetizer. As we’ve matured, so have our meat-and-potato palates; we have become amateur foodies in our middle age.

Tonight, my husband and I arrive at the restaurant first, and the hostess seats us by a window, claiming ours is one of their best tables handled by one of their finest servers. I smirk as I place my napkin in my lap, undecided about whether I should be bothered or flattered that we are now prime clientele for a hip and trendy dining establishment.

Weren’t we just the couple who was pretending to be grown up?

We leave our table hours after our plates have been cleared. Joe folds up the list and tucks it back into his jacket pocket; he will add this year’s restaurant as No. 21. As we wait outside for our cars, we promise, as we do each year, to get together before our 22nd dinner.

We may not make good on that promise, but our anniversary celebration on a summer evening in 2018 is one date night we can always count on to keep.

A Baltimore native, Dana Hemelt and her husband live in Howard County. They have two teenagers. She blogs at kissmylist.com and tweets @kissmylist.

Top photo: Public Domain Photos

Read more fun features from our first annual food issue now!

Tasty Times in Charm City, by Randi Rom

Baltimore-Area Chefs Share Their Favorite Recipes, by Randi Rom

From Gefilte Fish to Guacamole, by Jill Yesko

The Deli as a Symbol of the American Jewish Experience, by Richard Gorelick

A Farm-to-Table Thanksgiving Feast, by Joshua Rosenstein

Don’t Forget the Sides!, by Huppit Bartov Miller

The Siren Song of Shakshuka, by Amanda Krotki

Also see:

Food, Glorious Food!, by Alan Feiler

Two Decades of Dinners, by Dana Hemelt

Baltimore Hunger Project Strives for Full Bellies, by Lynne B. Kahn

Choosing Sides, by The Classic Catering People

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