After enjoying a movie on a recent Saturday, Todd Stroessner headed to dinner at Kip's Irish Pub in St. Louis Park, blissfully unaware that a midlife crisis of sorts awaited him.
As soon as his party of four was seated, it hit him: He couldn't read the menu. The usually fastidious accountant had forgotten his "cheater" glasses.
"The restaurant was dark, the menu print was small and my arms were too short," said Stroessner, 51.
Thankfully, his wife, Liz, had remembered her cheaters. But it still took the two of them and one of their companions more than 10 minutes to pass around the glasses and peer at the offerings before ordering.
The combination of fading vision, "romantic" lighting and hard-to-read menus (small type size, unsuitable background) has a bevy of Twin Cities diners pulling out specs or grabbing a candle from the table to get the lowdown on the soup du jour.
"I have had this problem many times," said Judie Cilcain of St. Paul. Solution: "I get my trusty 6-inch Mini Maglite flashlight out of my purse and use it to read menus."
Karen Cole of St. Paul sometimes has her boyfriend read the menu to her. "Which is kind of comical," she said, "because he doesn't always know how to pronounce certain menu items. Like things in French or arcane culinary terms. I almost always know what he means, though."
Annie Arnold of Plymouth has been known to go a step further. "I just ask the server to read the menu to me," she said.
Restaurants are on board
For their part, restaurants have been adjusting to an aging population, not by adding more prune dishes, but by keeping a supply of visual aids. Parma8200 general manager Ann Grant said her Bloomington eatery offers squinting customers a choice of mini-flashlights, magnifying glasses and four types of reading glasses.
Masa in Minneapolis has bright lighting but "a very small menu format and font," said general manager Dan Nelsen, who often reaches into his coat pocket and lends customers his cheaters.
At Parasole Restaurant Holdings -- whose Twin Cities eateries include Pittsburgh Blue, Salut and Chino Latino -- "every one of our restaurants has a box of cheaters," said Kip Clayton, vice president of marketing. "Usually they're from customers who left them and never came back to claim them."
El Meson in Minneapolis recently redid its menu and quickly had to adjust the type size.
"This is an ongoing issue," said co-owner/manager Erin Ungerman. "It seems like if I do anything under size 12 in the font, I get complaints. I am sure in 15 years, I will be one of the guests complaining about not being able to read the menu."
While restaurants generally heed patrons' complaints, there is one area where the customer is never right: lighting.
"If someone wanted us to put the lights on high, we wouldn't, because that's part of the ambience," Clayton said. "Most of us don't get better looking in harsh lighting."
Vision issues often start in 40s
Having trouble reading a menu can have its benefits. Twin Cities optometrist Dr. Greg Kraupa said many patients have cited that as a motivation to get their eyes checked.
And it's not just baby boomers. The average age when "near vision" problems start is 43, Kraupa said. Often, though, the onset of vision problems is not as sudden as it might seem.
"Unfortunately, we don't see people until they start losing their near vision, and sometimes we identify health conditions that have been festering for a long time and could have been treated," he said.
Just as often, those who had good vision until they hit their 40s "tend to be in denial," Kraupa said. "They'll stretch their arms out or move the menu into the light."
Not the Stroessners, who keep reading glasses "scattered around the house on just about every flat surface we can find," Todd Stroessner said. "Coffee tables, corner tables, nightstands, the kitchen counter, even a pair in each of the bathrooms."
And often, but not always, they have their cheaters with them.
"As my grandfather used to say, 'It's hell to grow old, but it beats the alternative,'" Todd Stroessner said. "I'd add that having a wife to bail you out on occasion makes the going easier, as well."
Bill Ward • 612-673-7643