“Mr. Zusman, you had the table for. . .ONE?” the hostess at the hot new place asks, flashing her best paste-on smile
[Before anyone paid me to write about food, just around the Y2K bend, I wrote a few food-related essays for Food Dude. He was the first one to let me try my hand at food writing, something for which I remain immensely grateful. I still prefer the essay form, but good luck selling it if your name isn’t Tony Bourdain or you don’t have solid connections in New York. Besides, if it’s not a list or under 140 characters, most everyone under 25 won’t bother. This essay, about eating out alone, mostly stands the test of time. The big differences, a decade later, are (1) restaurants have become far more receptive to solo diners; (2) the smartphone has supplanted tableside reading material; and (3) I’m a helluvalot more confident going into a restaurant myself and have no tolerance for being treated badly. Most of the restaurants mentioned are also gonzo. Hope you enjoy this encore. –mcz]
We have food, the food is good,
And so we will eat together.
So we will eat together
So we will eat together.
When we eat, ’twill be a treat,
So let us sing together
As we march along.
–“Marching to Pretoria”
A meal out shared with a cherished one, family members or a few close friends is a special pleasure. Together we satisfy one of our primary human hungers. Between bites, these moments united across the table afford us the opportunity to discuss our relationship to the world–our achievements and dreams; our joys and sorrows; petty gossip and weightier observations–and anything else including, naturally, the food in front of us. Informality and lack of structure characterize communications at the table. There are no speeches; no one need raise their hand to be recognized; and if there happen to be multiple conversations going on at the same time, all the better. It is all so democratic. This is why table talk, however it plays out, is my favorite form of social interaction.
Take away the dining companions and what do you get? For me, it usually comes down to a Hobson’s choice between preparing a meal-for-one-at-home, which I disdain, or half a deuce on the flight path to the toilets.
During many years of marriage, a solo restaurant meal for me was a rarity. It was usually the two of us with or without friends. The evening meal out was an interval to slow down, exit life’s freeway and reconnect to one another for an hour or two before sleep then buzzing off again on our professional journeys.
After several years of renewed singlehood, I have formed mixed feelings about going out to dinner myself. It beats eating at home, but I am enfeebled without the society of a partner. I am George with no Gracie, Penn without Teller, Adam absent Eve. I imagine the eyes of other diners burning through to my center, probing the story of my solitary standing. They see, and I envision, “loser” in garish red neon flashing across my chest.
I could ignore everything and everyone and read while I eat, but that looks pathetic and contrived when I observe others doing so. When I have tried the book at the table maneuver, my eyes and mind wander irrepressibly around the kitchen-scented tumult. My primary gustatory mission also beckons. The ever-changing menus of even my favorite stops need to be scanned, my order taken and my courses consumed. I lack the facility to read while I do these things. Reading at the table also seems to show disrespect for the restaurant as host, unless there is a restaurant at the library.
I could try to listen in on others’ conversations. At its best, this is like television channel surfing. But the strategy suffers flaws beyond its inherent voyeurism. Others’ conversations are often as exciting as a sermon. Those that do hold promise can come across something like, “. . .Owen and Kathy. . .lotion. . . .purple dog toy. . .omigod. . .,” followed by chortles of sadistic glee. No fair. If I can not hear the whole story, let alone participate, what is the point? This assumes that distinct snippets can be discerned at all. In the converted industrial spaces that pass for modern temples of gastronomy, concrete, metal and wood dominate the interior surfaces. Conversations bounce around in jumbled vectors then spew forth as one in an impenetrable, red-throated squall.
My internal discomfort aside, experience makes plain that solo diners are not restaurant favorites. It is not as though we arrive without funds or are particularly parsimonious. And there are plenty of us out there. The problem is that because we do not align with the social experience customarily associated with a meal out, we tend to be treated as surplusage. Tables are not built for one. A two- or four-top with only one occupant can be seen as a revenue reducer. As a result, the operator of an upscale establishment is less likely to cater to a guest toting a novel as her sole companion. There is no shiny, happy; no contribution to the vibe. No wonder we solos are too often seated near toilets and kitchens.
“Mr. Charles, you had the table for. . .ONE?” the hostess at the hot new place asks, flashing her best paste-on smile. I am convinced it is really a scalpel-edged critique intended to emphasize my misfit status.
“Yes. Booked a table weeks ago. Been looking forward to trying it.” I reply, as though she cares. I can tell that her perception of my statement is much the same as the Far Side cartoon dog that perceives its owner’s words as so much “blah blah blah.”
“Excellent,” the hostess says vacantly. She turns. “Tiffany, will you take Mr. Charles to table 16?”
Tiffany is the standard issue, drop dead gorgeous, twentyish underling. My mind wanders, and I contemplate how the slightest curve of Tiffany’s barely post-adolescent hips keeps her lowest of low rise pants in their upright and locked position.
Hostess and Tiffany exchange looks over a nanosecond, my relegation to northern Greenland as assured as an SUV overfilling a “compact” spot. The stroll with the smiling, gravity-defying young beauty is a stratagem to encourage meek acceptance of my fate. It works every time.
I understand the game, so the coarse treatment is neither unexpected nor ego shattering. All I want is a high quality meal that I do not have to cook and clean up after. I do not much care where I sit as long as it is not in the bathroom. The food will be the same. I can soak up a little of the ambiance. Because I have no one to kibbitz with, the pace of the meal will be brisk and I can get in, fed and back home in an hour or so. This will make my dogs very happy. Or, if I want, I can ruminate on each element of my repast or on myriad topics unrelated to the food, such as the latest aggravation at work, the hole in my love life or, vaguely related, the miracle of Tiffany’s pants.
Still, I think I deserve better. Why should I be treated like a carrier of loathsome disease? It is not as though I am getting a discount. I want to feel as though I am just as valued a customer as the couples, foursomes and larger parties. That is not asking too much, is it? If restaurant owners (and designers) considered this, it might work better for all of us. There are plenty of places on plenty of nights that could benefit from the imprimatur of the solo trade. All it takes is a little thought and effort.
There are counters to the long march of the lonesome diner. One is, literally, a counter. A fixture I adore at Wildwood, for example, is its service bar. With seats facing the open kitchen’s saute station and hearth oven, the customer’s natural focus is on the kitchen rather than other diners and missing companions. For those like me who enjoy cooking as a spectator sport, this is as good as it gets. Plus, the line cooks are a gregarious lot if they are not too slammed, so usually there are plenty of opportunities for conversation. Park Kitchen, Nostrana and Fenouil also have service counters. Even if none of them is as perfectly situated as the one at Wildwood, the effort is worth acknowledging.
A like benefit is the community table. One such has been an institution at the Original Pancake House for decades. There is also one at the Slanted Door, a San Francisco high-end Vietnamese standard in the Ferry Building. It is a great idea, especially if you are willing to shmooze with the stranger next door or across the table. Bonds can be built at a community table. A similar idea is in evidence at Roux and used to be employed at the large round tables at Fong Chong, back when its decent dim sum drew formidable crowds. Large tables are used for multiple parties, with the parties’ spaces separated by table top dividers. This and the undivided community table are underutilized concepts that ought to be encouraged. Whatever the specifics, I am far more likely to patronize an establishment where an obvious effort is being made to seat solos comfortably.
Another tactic hospitable dining establishments ought to employ is to suggest that servers, hosts and even managers make a special effort to assure that lone patrons feel welcome and wanted. Savvy floor workers do this intuitively. I am not suggesting lap dances or tableside psychotherapy. A few extra moments to chat with us a bit is all I have in mind. Lingering for an additional sentence or two is a noticeable and appreciated gesture. Sincerity counts too. Give me chance to say something more than “I’ll have the tomato bisque and the lamb shanks.” Some solo patrons might even have something valuable or interesting to contribute to the conversation. The extra effort will not hurt when it comes time to leave a gratuity.
Divorce, death, business travel or other circumstances may deprive each of us, at one time or another, of the comfort and collegiality of dining with lovers, friends and family. We still require sustenance, and a restaurant meal may be the preferred option as long as the experience is not oppressive. There are doubtless those, unlike me, who prefer no human company at the restaurant table. Though I would never deign to tell someone else how to run their business, common sense and compassion together suggest that more restaurants do more to cater to the solo crowd.
“Equal hospitality for all” shall be our rallying cry. Let it be so.
Because I travel for business, I eat alone with some regularity. More often than not, I find that people go out of their way to make me feel comfortable. The servers do, in fact, spend the extra 30 seconds per visit to make me comfortable. In fact, at Spring in Chicago last month, the server was so acommodating that she ended up reserving me a table at Green Zebra–a sister restaurant–where she made sure her boyfriend was my waiter. Pretty great service, that.
As for the question of reading, I always bring a book or a magazine. It’s not a feint to make me feel less awkward. It’s to stave off any boredom that a dining companion would otherwise prevent.
Me, I love eating out alone–at least if it’s good food. It frees me to devote whatever attention I want to my food and wine, something that is often impossible in a group.
I have often dined alone while traveling, without reservation. However, in my home city, I am much less likely to do that, for all the reasons mentioned (that, and I will not wander up to a stranger and ask if s/he would like company, as I have done overseas). If I do muster up the courage to go solo, I’ll admit I tend to bring a book.
Amen. I travel for work quite a bit and find myself eating 30 dollar soggy pasta with hockey puck scallops in my hotel room way too often. That is just plain wrong! The service counter is a great tip to look for when dining alone. FYI, Colleen’s has a great service counter and she always seems to willing to chat with the patrons.
Food Dude says
While reviewing, I find it much easier to eat by myself, because I can concentrate more on the food. Unfortunately, that would mean at least six visits to each restaurant. Fortunately, I have most of my friends trained to ignore me and carry on conversations amongst themselves.
I love eating alone (also, going to the movies alone), and always bring a book or some long article. I eavesdrop, too, but I do this when I’m with a group, as well, to the point where my husband occasionally takes my chin and turns it back to the party I am with.
As for eating at the counter: hurrah. We do it even when we are a party of two or three, and especially if the cocktails are good. At Ristretto Roasters (my husband’s cafe), we have several people who regularly come in for an hour or two, to sit at the counter and read the paper and flirt with the baristas. We’re happy to have them there.
Most of the meals I’ve eaten out have been by myself, mainly because my friends tend to fall into few categories: people in the service industry (but who have different days off than I do) and people who have all kinds of food aversions or allergies. I miss the company, yes, but when I want to experience great food, I have to go on my own schedule. Counters are great, but I must say that a lot of the time when I do get a table for one, I tend to pile things up on my table (wines, dishes) to enjoy myself as much as possible. People start to look at me like I might actually be having a better meal. I usually take the opportunity to share things with them (wines, not bites of food – that’s a little much) and engage them without trying to be their best buddy. It makes for a very convivial vibe in an intimate dining room.
Plus, a good book is handy at all times, whether it’s on the bus or at Paley’s.
Some cities and restuarants are friendlier than others when it comes to dining alone. There have been many times, when I’ve been rejected a table for one, and merely offered a place at the bar (this has happened to me in San Fran, LA and NY).
These days, unless the bar is unusally smokey, that’s where I like to sit when possible if I’m dining alone.
I find it easier to chat with the bartender (find out what their personal favorite dishes and/or wines) and any patrons sitting near by – should I feel like conversation, than withstand the pitied, and sometimes resigned glances of a waitstaff as I take up a 2 top.
It takes a lot of confidence to go out to dinner with the attitude that proclaims “I’m happy and comfortable enough with myself to be enjoying my own company at this meal”, and some days, I would wish for better take out options that would leave me to the comfort of my couch.
I really love eating alone in a restaurant. I often eat by myself at Chez Panisse (upstairs), as well as other good places around the Bay Area. There’s something about sitting by myself, watching the dance of the waiters, others enjoying their dinners, and really tasting each bite of my food that is just great. I do usually bring a book (rude to the restaurant? I hadn’t frankly thought of that). I’ve never really felt shorted, service-wise. I find it a lovely, relaxing way to spend an evening!
One of my favorite activities when my kids are with their dad for the weekend is to head to my favorite restaurant for breakfast at the counter.
Granted, I know most of the staff, the owners, and even a few regulars – so I can talk to people if I want to. But it’s the mix of frequently-replenished hot coffee, a breakfast that I didn’t make myself, and a Sunday paper to mosey through leisurely – or not, if the gossip’s particularly good – that makes it perfect.
Honestly, I’d rather not take anyone else along with me – it’s distracting.
Michael, thanks for the careful expression of your ‘inner discomfort’ at eating alone. Funny, too: I loved the image of Tiffany’s gravity-defying pants.
I eat out alone a lot, and feel many of the same things. And it’s even more complicated: I strive to keep this quiet tumult secret, to be convivial with servers, appear confident in my situation, etc. Which tends to divert my attention from the food and drink itself!
I find two things:
* it’s easier by far to eat out alone at breakfast or lunch
* habituation helps with the discomfort: it gets easier as I do it more, or visit the same restaurant more than once while dining alone.
Jess D'Zerts says
How funny, to find your site on a Google of Marching to Pretoria. Oddly enough, I just recently dined alone at a restaurant, not something I usually do but I had a gift card and it was Lobster Fest at the Tigard Red Lobster. My waiter Andrew was a prince among men, anticipating my every need throughout the meal. I had brought a book but didn’t have time to read a word, as service began immediately. It was great!
Ten years later this article holds up very well! Being a life-long single guy I dine out by myself quite often – just not at “fine dining” places. I can’t count the number of times the check arrived with the entree which I took as a hint to just hurry up, eat and clear out. I take the hint and tip appropriately(10-15%). I have had my best service at local pubs with friendly servers seating me at four top tables and tip appropriately(30-40%). I have learned the worst service and attitudes come with dinner service so I tend to dine out for breakfast and lunch.
Portlands great for dining out alone, the counter is the single woman’s plus one. Wednesday and Thursday’s work best for tying up a table for one-if ‘fine dining’ Friday’s and Saturdays can feel a little awkward . People watching and eves dropping a must, a view of the kitchen a bonus. Not much has changed the last 10 years except it’s getting harder to get a seat.