More Americans spell a night out 'm-e-n-u'

If you're thinking about going out to dinner tonight, you might want to consider what that implies about you-especially if you are a Democrat or a Yankee.

One-third of Americans say heading to a restaurant is their favorite thing to do when planning a night out, according to a recent Christian Science Monitor/TIPP poll of 904 Americans, with Republicans and Southerners the most likely to be perusing menus.

Nightlife choices may not be as divisive as, say, stem-cell research. But people in various parts of the country have different ideas about how best to spend an evening.

"Southerners like to eat, always remember that," says Weldon Renfro, owner of a shoeshine business in Houston.

"It's all about food in the South," says Mr. Renfro, whose big nights out always center around dinner -and a pretty date.

Eating out, reserved only for special occasions in the 1950s, is now a necessity for busy people and families with

working moms. Even so, Americans still put it in the same category as attending a movie or a sporting event.

Dinner beat other options such as seeing a live show or going to a party (the second and third choices, with 21 percent and 15 percent, respectively) in the Monitor/TIPP poll. Going dancing is farther down on the list - with just 5 percent. Surprisingly, political affiliations seemed to play a role in how much people like to rumba, with Democrats liking it as an option more than Republicans.

"That doesn't surprise me, Democrats like to dance around the issues," quips Jonathan Fletcher, acting executive director of the Massachusetts Republican Party. Nonetheless, he questions whether there's really any difference between the eating and sashaying habits of members of political parties.

Experts who study how people play say little research has been done on regional differences in leisure activities -but whatever people choose, they are spending money on more than just a couple of hours of entertainment.

"It's a way for people to feel valued," explains Deb Jordan, a professor of leisure studies at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater. "Somebody else is taking a personal interest in us" -waiting on us, entertaining us -"... it makes us feel more valued as a human being."

A hundred years ago, people had no choice but to go out for fun. There was no TV or radio, nothing to keep them glued to the couch. That's when dance halls and attractions like New York's Coney Island became popular, leisure experts explain. At first, it was primarily men who congregated at taverns, until a place was created for women - the department store.

Today, we have entertainment shopping experiences like Niketown and ESPN Zone, and sports stadiums that are enticing people with activities other than the game to fill bleacher seats. Still, it's not the same as before, says Dan Cook, an assistant professor of advertising and sociology at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana.

"There is definitely less variety of public amusements than there were a century ago," he says.

Eventually radio became popular, then TV, and then the cable explosion. And now, researchers are debating whether people really have less free time than they did 40 years ago, as many complain. Or is it just that they spend the free time they do have in front of the TV, exhausted because they are working harder and faster than ever?

"Go out at night? Who has time to go out at night?" asks Yvonne Cane, a middle-aged woman from New York's Staten Island, when posed with the question.

About as many women as men in the Monitor/TIPP poll said they would choose eating out if they had to pick a favorite. But not surprisingly, women (like the harried Ms. Cane) prefer going to live shows or dancing more than men do. Men, shockingly, prefer sports. Twice as many men as women said they head for the big game on their night out.

"I love going to the Mariners' game," says Ari Halpern, a law student from Seattle. "I'm trying to come up with something I'd like more than that, but it's tough."

But even he can't resist the draw of many people's No. 1 choice. "Maybe dinner on the waterfront. Yeah. Dinner on the waterfront and then a Mariners' game," he adds after giving it more thought.

Today, eating out is more of a reward for working hard. "We both work, my wife and I, and the last thing we're thinking about is 'What are we going to cook?' " says Joe Urrea, a draftsman in Tucson, Ariz., who goes for Mexican food on the weekends.

Ironically, Americans like their meals to be speedy events. As Professor Jordan puts it, in the US, "If it takes longer than an hour, we think something's wrong with the service."

In the Netherlands, where she was working recently, she says dinner is a three- to five-hour event that involves socializing and the meal being prepared when you order it, unlike some places in the US that basically have the food ready before you sit down.

But not everyone says they like to speed through a meal. Some Americans view it as a time to catch up. "The activity is not what's most important. What would be more important would be who I was with," says Py Bateman, a 50-something technical writer from Seattle.

"I went out to dinner with two friends a week ago. It was perfect," she says. An important part of the evening was that no one had any responsibility. "No one had to cook. No one had to wash the dishes. I guess we had to drive there, but not much else. That was the luxury of it -to not have any cares," she says.

Going out to dinner requires less negotiating, once the type of food has been agreed on - because people can still make individual decisions, especially at a time when tastes have become very differentiated, says Professor Cook. "You can't be in [a] hip-hop [concert] and listen to Sinatra there, but in a restaurant there's a better chance to divide up tastes and preferences without conflict," he says.

But for some people, going out in a group is exactly how they like to spend an evening.

James, a middle-age security guard in Brooklyn, describes his usual routine: "I'd go home, take a shower, and go out dancing."

Night spots in Manhattan and New Jersey that play hip-hop, the blues, and reggae are what attract him. "Most of my friends go out dancing. We are all the same age and like to go out and have a good time."

He's a Democrat, but doesn't think his party affiliation has anything to do with his sense of rhythm. "Everyone- Democrat, Republican - likes to enjoy themselves."

Staff writer Kris Axtman in Houston, Texas, Sara B. Miller in New York, and Dean Paton in Seattle contributed to this report.

THOSE DANCING DEMS

Of those who like to cut a rug on their night out, 47% are Democrats. Only 30% of those on the dance floor are Republicans, and just 22% vote as independents.

PARTY OF TWO

39% of patrons filling the nation's restaurants are Republicans. Democrats and independents are more likely to cook at home. They make up 29% and 28% of those perusing menus.

SPORTIN' SOUTH

Southerners are the most likely to fill the bleachers in the US. 41% of them go to sports events, compared with 15% of Northeasterners.

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