I’m getting married in a restaurant. A small, seasonal restaurant so tucked into the suburbs of Raleigh, North Carolina, that as you make your way there, you become sure you’re lost and pull over and take out your phone and open Maps and then, just like that, it’s there.
Fortyish people can fit inside. There are grey walls and red leather banquettes, Bill Murray plates and framed needlepoint, tiny candles and salamis swinging from the ceiling. If it weren’t for the heartily stocked bar and wide-open kitchen, you might mistake it for someone’s home. And I love that.
It’s a hot Sunday afternoon. The restaurant is closed, but Justin and I are here, sitting at the bar, chatting with two of the owners. I’m slurping a blackberry-bourbon smash, big ice cubes and bigger mint springs, when one of them says, “Would you like some Krispy Kreme bread pudding?”
Of course we want the bread pudding. It has tobacco ice cream on top, which melts slowly as Justin talks about how we moved to the South knowing no one but now couldn’t imagine getting married anywhere else, how we wanted a wedding that was really a dinner party or a dinner party that was really a wedding, how we wanted to host it with people we knew, how we wanted those people to be them.
They love it. Who doesn’t love a wedding?
“The reception, right?”
“Right,” Justin says. “And like, the wedding.”
They laugh and look at each other. There’s just: “We’ve never done a wedding before.”
Not a ceremony. Not even a reception.
Justin and I laugh and look at each other. We’re thinking the same thing: “That’s fine,” I say. “Neither have we.”
Thirtysomething years ago, my mom and dad were on a train. They were going somewhere or coming from somewhere and she greenlit him proposing. Sort of.
“It was a shit or get off the pot moment!” she likes to say.
They had been dating for a few years and, soon enough, my dad asked my mom to marry him one morning over lox-onion omelets and Champagne.
It wasn’t like that for me and Justin.
We met on our first day of college and were close friends for years before we started dating. A couple months into our relationship, I told my mom, “This is it.” This is the love of my life. Justin and I both felt that way. But we were 21, barely out of school, moving to the South, moving in together. There was other stuff to talk about.
And then, a few years later, it was all we could talk about.
I remember there was that weekend we were at a friend’s wedding and Justin whispered, I’m going to marry you when he thought I was asleep. And that time we were walking around the lake and we talked about how getting married fit into our other priorities. And how it didn’t. And that night we were out for our third anniversary and ate cheeseburgers and drank too much rosé.
Somewhere along the way, these conversations shifted. From: Do we want to get married? Ever? Do we want to get married to each other? Why? Where? When? To: I want to get married. I want to marry you. Just, don’t make the proposal a big thing. Not in front of anyone. Just us. And I don’t want a ring like that, I want one just like this.
I knew when we were getting engaged, within a couple-week period, but that morning, I was surprised. Because I had already figured it out. Or I thought I had.
It made sense to get engaged on a Sunday because we went to our favorite bakery every Sunday morning. But it didn’t make sense to get engaged on a Sunday because our favorite restaurant, Stanbury, was closed on Sunday and we wouldn’t be able to go to dinner to celebrate.
It was a Sunday in mid-July. We were walking around the lake around 6-something in the morning when Justin pulled my hand toward the water, and I said, “What are you doing?” And he said, “This is it, baby.”
I don’t remember what happened after that. Even 20 minutes later, when we were walking back to our apartment, I said, “What did you just say? I have no idea what you just said. Say it again.” And he said it again. And I forgot again.
Actually, I remember one sentence, and the way the morning light looked on the water behind us. Everything was so bright. I could barely even see Justin’s smile as he said to me, “I want to admire you as you grow old.”
Like every Sunday, Stanbury was closed, but we had dinner there anyway. A few weeks earlier, Justin had called the restaurant and left a voicemail. It went something like: “Hi! My name is Justin. I’m about to propose to my girlfriend and I want to reserve your restaurant—your entire restaurant—for the two of us—just the two of us. Call me!”
They called him. They were in.
Justin told them that we love their raw oysters and roasted bone marrow—with parsley salad and almost-burnt toast—and also that booth, over there in the corner. He told them that we love martinis but only with gin and more olive brine than you’d think.
When we arrived that night, it was still light out, early evening. We paused to take a photo in front of the restaurant, my eyes squished shut in the sun. As we walked in, I was still blinking away the bright spots as my sight shifted: roses everywhere, even in the bathroom.
Which is so Stanbury. Romantic and silly, meticulous and carefree all at once. If you asked me why I love it there, I’d talk your ear off about their grilled Caesar and pistachio-pesto tagliatelle. But if you asked me again, I’d tell you about its quirks, how they’re what make it so charming to me.
Justin and I are sort of like that. We have different personalities and very different careers. But we have the same value systems. And work ethics and financial habits and senses of humor. And we both really love food.
I don’t know if it was the menu or the way Stanbury took care of us or the fact that Justin planned all of that. That he knew just how to floor me without embarrassing me. But that was the best meal of my life.
We started planning a 100ish-person wedding. I read somewhere that you’re supposed to list your priorities, so we listed our priorities:
The first one was the big one. It also all but decided the location. Even though we’re both from the northeast, our relationship is North Carolinian: The farmers market where we bought our little plants and giant watermelons is in North Carolina. The trails we ran along and mountain we camped on and lake where Justin proposed are in North Carolina. The bakery we went to every weekend is in North Carolina. The shelter where we adopted our cat Butter is in North Carolina. The restaurants we went to for our birthdays and anniversaries and bad days are in North Carolina.
So we’d get married in North Carolina. The only catch was, how many restaurants, run by people we know and trust, can fit 100 people? Next to none.
We explored those options. We explored other options. Restaurants that do weddings. Restaurants that don’t do weddings. Wedding venues with food programs. Not-wedding venues where we could bring in the food. None of it felt right. And then I couldn’t get the pen stain out of my dress.
I should explain. I stumbled on my wedding dress at The Bridal Garden, a nonprofit store in New York City where you snag cast-away gowns off the rack. Mine was too big and had a messed-up strap and stretched-out elastic and a pen stain on the chest. But I loved it.
“Do you think the stain will come out?” I asked the sales associate.
“Of course!” she said. “I’ve gotten permanent marker out of dresses before!”
I bought the dress. Then I ate a giant bowl of noodles to celebrate. Then I brought it to a professional cleaner who said, “The stain won’t come out.” Then I cried. Then I cried that I was crying. Then I started to wonder: Can I bleach the dress? Dye the dress? Cover it with a giant silk flower like Carrie on Sex and the City? Get a new dress? Who cares about the dress? Why is there so much attention on it? And on me? Why does it matter what I look like? Who’s going to notice a teeny, tiny, little pen mark? And it’s blue—isn’t there something about “something blue”? Isn’t that good luck?
Which is when it hit me. The pen wasn’t a problem. It was a sign from the universe.
If I was wearing this dress to my reception, one that’s supposed to be all about the food, then that meant I’d be eating and drinking in the dress. And like any time I eat and drink, I’m going to get something on my myself. And it’s going to stain the dress. And what then?
Justin and I stopped talking about the pen stain and started talking about the wedding. For about an hour, between the two of us, we canceled it altogether. And then we went back to our priorities and realized, we hadn’t been following them. We had started planning a wedding, but it wasn’t our wedding. It’s funny how easy it is to do that. So we started over.
The big day is tomorrow, and I still don’t know what getting married in a restaurant will look like. I guess that’s sort of the point.
Because if I’m being real, it’s not just about the food. That was the hook—bring the wedding to the food, not the food to the wedding—but it’s so much more than that. It always is, right?
We wanted to get married in a restaurant because it’s not an event venue and it’s not made to host events. Which means there are no packages, no rules, no policies. It’s just you and whomever you’re working with trying to, well, make it work. You get more say in certain places—like a custom-made menu—and no say in others. A lot of details aren’t even possible.
You can push tables together but forget seating arrangements. You can put a flower here and there but forget big centerpieces. You can hang out in the chocolate shop next door beforehand but forget a bridal suite. You can have a ceremony, but everyone will be squished together and maybe the cooks will be frying polenta nuggets in the open kitchen in the background.
After we cut the guest list in half (this wasn’t fun or easy), we cut a lot of the traditions that didn’t resonate with us. And then we focused on the stuff that did: Instead of greeting the guests with programs, what if we handed them a raw oyster? Instead of playing instrumental music as we walked down the aisle, what if we played a song that we’d sing on the highway during a road trip?
Instead of the wedding being the happiest or most romantic or most special day of our lives, what if it was just a day? A really happy, really romantic, really special day. That’s the sort of goal I can get excited instead of anxious about. That’s what I’m going for.
I read somewhere that you should visualize your dream day, so I visualized my dream day:
It is Sunday morning, sometime after sunrise, and Justin wakes me with a kiss on my collarbone. He makes scrambled eggs and toast and brings them to me in bed. Butter is purring between us. But then one of us spills coffee all over the sheets.
9/7/18 update—we’re married! It thunderstormed during our ceremony and we laughed even more than we cried (and that’s, ahem, saying something). There were so many sage martinis and all the cacio e pepe and it was, it turned out, one of the best days of our lives. How lucky is that?
What advice would you give to us newlyweds? Share in the comments!