Table for One, Dammit

table for one

I don’t go to church, but I do eat alone in restaurants.  There is a similarity in the experiences – the quiet lighting, the solemn way the maitre d’ ushers me to my seat, the hushed whisper of his crepe-soled shoes, the smoothing of my skirt before I sit, the brief smiles at faces turned momentarily toward me.

Some people detest eating alone but I like it.  Things smell better when you eat alone – there are no words building up across the table, keeping the aromas pushed close to the plate.

People are uneasy when a woman eats alone – especially paired people.  Within the pairs, the women feel a sort of sympathetic self-conciousness.  The men feel a frisson of curiosity at the possibilities.  The women belatedly sense that the men are frissoning and resent how an empty chair increases rather than decreases  my capital, when a moment ago they’d been feeling so relieved to be dining out as part of a  pair.  Dining alone is yet another thing most women would rather not have to learn to look sassy and self-confident doing.

I look up to see a woman looking at me as she makes a remark to  her pinstripe-wearing husband, her lipsticked mouth forming the words as clearly as if she’d spoken them in my ear:  I could never do that.  He gives one of those looks around the restaurant that is designed to seem casual so he can see who she is talking about.  As his eyes pass faux-innocently over me, I think about winking but don’t.

I am briefly annoyed.  If it was that kind of restaurant I’d order fajitas, because of the sizzle that makes heads crane towards me as if I were dancing and my skirt had suddenly caught fire .

But it’s not a fajita kind of restaurant.  It is the kind of restaurant where the good lighting adds $15 to every entrée.  Floor to ceiling windows are open to the mild California night air that puffs at the sheer red fabric hanging there so that it billows romantically.  The women of the couples that sit near these curtains work hard to conceal their delight at the way they imagine themselves to look in this setting, and carefully avoid looking at me, the lone woman , who might be looking back but isn’t, because I am looking at the curtains too, thinking how  they remind me of the red light district in Amsterdam, where hookers lounge in red curtained show windows like actual merchandise, bored with the way they straddle the straight backed chair in fake black leather, bored with the way the tourists gawp as if at something newly sexy and unsuspected when for them it’s just nothing at all but more of the same old thing.

I order oysters, discreetly sniffing each as I lift them to my mouth, enjoying the faint briney smell that always reminds me of the aftermath of sex.

I order rack of lamb and the pungent taste of the meat evokes a rolling grassy hillside dotted with my dinner’s brothers and sisters.  I like this vision and contemplate it as I chew.

I order asparagus spears which arrive brushed in olive oil and standing in a bristling green bundle so that their heads look like the tops of shrubs in the spring after its rained.

The only time I was in Amsterdam I took a short cut back to my hotel from a restaurant. It was a fancy restaurant but I left still hungry for something.  I used the map to plot my shortcut and was deep in  the Red Light District before I knew it.  Dusk had fallen and suddenly men were everywhere and I got nervous and ducked into the first shop with a door open.  There were three women sitting there in chairs, not dressed particularly sexy and though they didn’t say anything,  I could still tell right away that it was not a shop shop, but a girl shop, a sex place.

They didn’t seem surprised to see me, a woman, standing there as if I wanted what they had, though I had it too. I looked around and gave an embarrassed smile and left, walking back to my hotel as fast as I could go.  I never realized that the prostitutes actually lived in the Red Light District  (I always imagined it like a deserted Wild West Town during the daytime) but obviously at least some of them do, because as I walked I could smell the smells of the lives they lived above the red lit windows.  I could smell unidentified meat cooking, and the mineral smell of ancient pipes that stained the old buildings with their sweat.

The meat smell made me think of home, how my mom had a schedule of meals and you knew what day it was by the meat – Monday was round steak, Tuesday was hamburger, Wednesday was pork chops, Thursday meatloaf.   We always had cheap meat except on weekends.  Every Sunday I woke to the sound of bacon frying, the car starting up as my dad went to get the milk and the paper.

The waiter asks if there will be anything else. I send him away with an order for a cappuccino and an apple tarte tatin, and a folded over napkin for the woman.

Yes you could, it says. With a smiley.

The best part of eating alone is not having to negotiate over, or share, dessert.  I enjoy the way the espresso cuts the stickiness of  the caramelized apple.

The waiter hovers; I look up.  A generous pour of port, breathes alcohol and fruit into my flushed face.  “From the gentleman,” he gestures and I look up to catch pinstripe’s smiling nod.  I lift the glass and wink at his scowling wife.

207 responses to “Table for One, Dammit

  1. This was a great read!

    Years ago, when I was single, I went to the Outback on Valentines’s day. I wasn’t dating anyone. The host or whatever you call them came out and yelled, “John, table for one!” Somewhere in the packed lobby, some woman said, “aww…..” She didn’t say it mean, she said it like she felt sorry for me. I was totally fine eating alone that night until that happened 🙂 I didn’t cry or anything, I just felt weird for being singled out.
    Funny about sharing dessert. I also hate sharing. When I was dating my wife, we went to a great American restaurant our people call “Ruby Tuesdays.” I ordered this big tall cake they used to have, with ice cream and all that. I didn’t want to share. I was like, “You should order one.” I was so clueless… She married me anyway.

    • Isn’t it weird that eating alone is weird?! I sometimes go to movies alone too, and my friends in Texas were like “aw, you should call me!”. In San Francisco it is not considered odd behavior to bring a book to the movie to read before the start.

      • Hah, I’m married but I love going to movies alone, and I always bring a book. Sometimes I get annoyed when the lights turn out and I have to stop reading so I can watch the 60% fresh rating movie I’m seeing because it’s something to do 🙂 I go to movies with my wife too, but she only goes to movies that are actually “good.” I know, right?

    • I’ve always considered eating alone a little strange and something I would never do. Funny though, no real reason why it should be. This post has opened my eyes, I might give it a go! Great writing! X

  2. Your post made me laugh – not at you but at the situation. I work in hospitality and can honestly tell you from a dining establishment or waiter’s point of view – single diners throw restaurants into a tizzy.I could write a thesis on the subject yet prefer to say – keep kicking ass 🙂

      • I’ll do that one day. The psychology of it is interesting. Single diners are pitied,tolerated (they take up space for what usually ends up being a lower tab than a couple at the same table – hence lower tip for the server) Myself – I always made a point of taking extra time to engage solo diners, be it as a server years ago or manager later in life. I met some of the most fascinating people in this circumstance. Some of whom are friends to this day. 🙂

  3. Sometimes it hits you there is really something horribly and fundamentally Wrong when you have to go around constantly self-aware, constantly ‘on show’.
    Maybe it’s an age thing. I have suddenly become ‘older’ (it does hit you like that: lucky the ones who grow with it!) and seem to have become invisible to all but people of my age. Consequently I rarely care about younger opinions or whatever they are, any more.(‘Life’s too short!’ becomes meaningful).
    Eating alone is a hidden pleasure. If you don’t squander it you can indulge it as long as you want.

  4. Good observation, eating alone has been a norm especially on busy days, but it does get awful and you could really feel the paw of societal pressure ( ergo, days when you shouldnt be alone dining out) during holidays. Everyone seems to look at you

  5. I like that it sounds like you left your iCompanion at home too. If I go eat by myself I’m always tempted to pull out the iGadget to look “purposeful” but this is a great challenge to sit and relish in the meal that you are served and I love how you point out that without feeling like you have to converse or share, you get to enjoy every delicate morsel. I’m adding it to my 101 in 1001 list as a challenge.

  6. I like dining alone, and do it reasonably often – especially when travelling. Taking a book is a good way to look unconcerned but I prefer to just enjoy the meal and the atmosphere and shamelessly evesdrop on conversations. I’ve made friends with several waitstaff this way too – in my favourite cafe, the owner knows me and always comes over for a chat as I eat my lunch. You’ve captured the feeling of it perfectly.

    • Thanks for the nice comment. Traveling for work is the main reason I had to become accustomed to eating alone…you can only eat so many meals in your hotel room watching Spectravision. Even if I don’t have an attentive/cool waiter, I like being among people.

  7. Ha ha love this. I totally agree women would rather not learn to eat alone but bloody should ! Lets all get out there and eat and NO I dont mean at the crappy table table next to the toilets !!!! x

  8. Great piece, your descriptions take me there, building an atmosphere of time-polished cobblestone and dimly lit restaurants full of mystery. Maybe I’m just too romantic but that’s why I took away from this first. Secondly I agree with you fully and couldn’t help smiling with something not unlike a feeling of vicarious victory at the closing line. Thanks for sharing!

  9. Your skill at writing inspires me. I’ve done so many things as a single woman from attending weddings to dining to vacationing alone. Sometimes it is fun, sometimes not so fun but I really think it all hinges on who is surrounding me and their acceptance (or not) of my solo-ness. I’ve either felt at ease or awkward, happy or sad, bored or interested, so for me it ‘a never just the same experience over and over again. I really appreciate your gift. Thank you!

  10. I love eating breakfast out by myself. It’s so nice to be able to enjoy how ever many cups of coffee I want, and to catch up on my reading. There is great solace in eating alone. Thanks for capturing it.

  11. I was in my 40s(& divorced) before I’d ever eaten at a restaurant alone or gone to a movie alone..The movie, btw, was Mamma Mia with Meryl Streep..OMG..I quickly got over feeling uncomfy cause I was trying out going to a movie ALONE..I had a BALL in that theater singing the Abba songs & swaying my seat..Thankfully it was mid-day and it wasn’t a crowded theater..The few folks there got caught UP in my excitement(first of all I felt SO liberated and all grown up) and they started humming songs too. Before I get hitched again I’ll have to try to enjoy a meal out alone as you’ve described..I don’t do it often; resorting instead to take out or bringing a book to read(to look busy, as IF eating isn’t busy enough) or chomping it up texting on my Iphone…Really enjoyed reading your version of the eating alone experience..Kudos & congrats & 2 thumbs UP

    • thanks for the nice comment — I used to try to seem busy (because i’m SOOO important, don’t you know), then realized I was ruining my own experience to project an image that no one who *might* look over at me would even care about…it took me awhile to just be comfortable sitting there eating and enjoying the atmosphere.

      • Lol, lol! Yes, exactly as IF the everyone is watching us “alone” in the restaurant..Although “turning heads” is something I always enjoy :)…I did find it interesting though one of your commenters said a “party of one” can present an issue for top restaurants..Who knew?? And so not cool to be considered any less important; just because the tip will only be from ONE person..On my list of must-do -things in this Life Journey I need to start a chain of 5 star restaurants called “Party of ONE”..Would probably end up being a big singles scene..WOW..I’m a dreamer..But anyways enjoy your enthusiam and I’ll pop in often to check your spot out

        • You might enjoy reading Ruth Reichel, the New York Times food critic. She used to dress up in dowdy clothes and then go to Michelin starred restaurants to see how they’d treat her (not knowing she was the Hallowed Critic). She believes that fine dining should be the great equalizer, e.g. everyone who can afford the meal should have the same great experience, the service shouldn’t differ from one diner to the next.

  12. I only started dining out on my own when I began solo traveling (something else that is often scowled at, especially for women). It’s really quite the enjoyable experience once you learn to love your own company, everyone should try it!

  13. As a college student with an unwieldy schedule, I have lots of practice eating alone in a setting where nobody notices or cares. It’s enjoyable having the freedom to observe and to overhear. Next weekend I look forward to taking myself to see Les Miserables, which hopefully will look a little more like your posh restraunt and a little less like my cafeteria.

  14. This was amazing! I always prefer trying a restaurant for the first time alone, it allows me to take in the unique, hard to notice things about a place and freedom to try anything I like on the menu. You have a incredible writing style! Its witty and refreshing, makes you want to keep reading.

  15. Really love this article… It’s amazing how many different opinions there are on eating alone, when really, lets face it, it’s a pretty basic thing to do! In fact, sometimes it is just great to sit and relax in your own company! Thanks for the article, love it!

  16. Please tell me that this actually happened? (If it didn’t, pro tip: just lie and make me happy). Also, as a fellow loner eater, I really don’t understand what the big deal is? I’ve heard people say that kind of thing before too. Why is it so difficult? It’s pretty easy, actually. You go to a restaurant, sit at a table, order food, eat it. Voila! You just ate on your own. Now go pat yourself on the back and masturbate furiously into the wind, yet another thing you can do alone.

    • Yes, it all happened. The restaurant was Tra Vigne, in the wine country. I don’t know what the big deal is – it seems like a really big deal, until you do it…then you’re just like “What was the big deal?!”

  17. I’m not fond of eating out, preferring to cook most of my meals, but you’re right it can be an interesting experience to dine alone in a public place.

  18. My nana often eats alone because my granddad works. She told me that she used to not explain her situation to the restaurant staff. Now that’s she’s older she feels has to, lest people think she’s lost her husband and yet is still wearing his ring. I hate eating by myself; I’m spending more money and not getting conversation out of it, of course I’m broke college student though.

    • That is the only drawback to eating alone – the lack of conversation. However, it’s fun to listen to the conversation in my head, which is ongoing — and sometimes (especially at nice places) the waiter will make a point to chat with me and check in, I’ve met some really interesting people that way.

  19. It is amazing how people do react to single people eating at a sit-down, order from menu restaurant. Most annoying, when server wants to seat singleton at a crappy corner..towards the back, near washroom or near where dirty dishes are put/or dishes are ready to be carried out by servers. If there’s enough empty tables, I inevitably ask for a better location.

    Though I have a partner, there are times he’s on the road and I occasionally just want to eat out. Sometimes it’s just easier to eat solo in big cities,particularily in downtown locations. People seem to care less vs. smaller towns/suburbs.

    I personally don’t have problems eating out with my partner, a good friend or family member. I RARELY negotiate/quibble over food with other person who I like their company. So I guess I don’t quite understand…..but then I have a broad palate/not a picky eater as long as it’s reasonably healthy with occasional decadence. I grew up with 5 siblings and so that helps eating with others, maybe?

  20. I like eating at restaurants by myself sometimes. Just simply enjoy the food, atmosphere, and maybe a book. But I also enjoy going to eat with my boyfriend. There shouldn’t be any weird looks given from someone eating by themselves. Great piece…I loved the descriptions and imagery.

  21. So it’s not only me… Sometimes I prefer it to be just me and the food, no disruptions. A great read, very descriptive it really made me feel like I was there in the restaurant watching you.

  22. Great post! There’s something so peaceful about going to restaurants or to coffee shops alone. Some people feel uncomfortable with that, but it’s important to gain confidence and be alone sometimes. It’s relaxing and good for our mental health.

  23. Thanks to all who commented – a bit overwhelming to log in and find my comments at 10x the normal rate – then someone told me I’d been ‘freshly pressed’ — thanks to all for taking the time to read and comment – and thank you also WordPress overlords!

  24. I like your writing. It flows nicely and creates a good visual.

    I eat alone all the time – nothing wrong with it!

    • Exactly! maybe that’s what makes others nervous – they don’t just guess you are watching them, they are sure of it, since you don’t have anyone else to look at/talk to!

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