On evenings that commence at 45 minutes past the Winter Solstice, the conversation stays intentionally vague.
Oh, they begin with the best laid plans - friends catching up after missing a much anticipated walk - encompassing nothing more than dinner and a good blather, although preceded, as always, by the standard reminder ("Wha, wah, wah, so I can't stay out late...") which I've learned to ignore.
When I throw out destination options - Metzger, Peter Chang, Rappahannock, Dinamo - he's quick to admit he had pizza for lunch, so more inclined to something lighter and more, but not totally, vegetable-focused. I hear, loud and clear.
Peter Chang, and not just for that reason.
On my double couple holiday date last Friday, the five of us bandied about dining possibilities and when I suggested Peter Chang, the male half of one couple copped to having been there already twice that week.
"But I'd go back again!" his better half called from the bathroom. There are so many reasons to love Peter's.
Personally, one of mine is getting to introduce a friend to scallion bubble pancakes, which I did in the slyest possible manner, suggesting we order them to share despite his unfamiliarity with them and then watching the pleasure on his face when they arrive a table away.
"What's that?" he wonders, wide-eyed and pointing. It gives me great satisfaction to tell him that it is exactly what he already ordered.
I could rhapsodize about the exquisite torture of using all available stores of self-restraint to prevent burning your fingers on the freshly baked bread balloons when they show up, but instead I'll say that I'm older and wiser enough just to cool my jets until it's still good and warm, but won't blister my fingers (happened).
After that, all bets are off.
Sure, I can start by ripping off a piece of the puffy pancake and immersing it in its curry dipping sauce, but that isn't nearly as much a party in my mouth as using it to sop up the puddle of soy and chili sauces left on my plate after an earlier round of pork dumplings.
But a chorus of angels sing when I use my scallion pancake as a blanket for dry fried green beans swimming in a sea of fat scallions, peppercorns and chili, all mounded inside, the kind of combination that could make a vegetable-hater see the light.
The guiltiest pleasure is a bamboo pagoda loaded with a stack of log-like cilantro flounder fish rolls which delivered the audible crunch that assure me they're probably not part of a low cholesterol diet. Not as good as the green beans, despite being fried, but plenty tasty.
It's meals as flavor-forward and yet simple as these that underscore why friends chow down here three times a week. The question is, why don't I more often given its proximity?
As a side benefit, apparently people I know hang out there. I'd arrived earlier than my friend tonight and waited patiently at the bar, barely looking up when a guy walked in and glanced at me, or even when he sat down a stool away from me and our eyes met.
Finally, he says, "Karen?"
A soon as I look at him for the third time, I realize who he is - a photographer/server I've known for 5 or 6 years - and say a proper hello. He's incredulous that we'd made eye contact twice and I hadn't recognized him.
And while I hated to state the obvious, I had no choice: he's a middle-aged man with a beard and glasses.
Do you know how many middle-aged men with a beard and glasses we have in this town, nay, in this country? Granted, he's attractive and in shape, so he's not just another shambling middle-aged man with a beard and glasses, but still. No one has time to fully engage with every middle-aged man with a beard and glasses who meets your eyes, am I right?
We compared notes on the state of our lives and came up with the same report: both doing what we love and making it work for us as a life, albeit a simple one. "Congratulations to us!" he toasted just as my friend arrived.
So what better topic to take up with him than that very subject? What's the point of all this if you don't figure out who you are and what you want before any more time is wasted? Not all of us are going to live to be 99 like Zsa Zsa ('though people who know me well seem to be convinced I will), you know.
So while intentional gifts were exchanged and shared music was listened to, the shortest day was mainly notable for being the thoroughly enjoyable latest installment of an ongoing conversation that still persists in coming in and out of range sometimes, like a radio station when you're driving the highway all day.
And who doesn't like a good road trip?