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. Reblogged this on GoStepAway and commented:
    I hate this kind of feeling, but yeah, I think almost all of us ever have this hard time. But I believe there’ll be a time to fix it.

  2. I like this. But I’m not brave enough to eat on my own in a restaurant. Maybe I will start a restaurant with TV tables and a big screen. I’d be more comfortable with that.

  3. I really enjoyed this post. I have not yet been brave enough to eat in a restaurant alone, restaurants are not a big part of my lifestyle any more but it’s definitely on my “To Do” list. It also made me think of the scene from “Shirley Valentine” where Shirley who was quite happy to dine alone is “rescued” by a couple who obviously think it is not right or proper for her to eat by herself in a foreign country.

  4. I don’t see the point of going to a fancy restaurant alone unless the chef happens to be one that you particularly admire. Eating a meal doesn’t take very much time; it’s conversation that draws out the meal and intertwines with good food to make a memorable experience. If by myself, I’d rather go to a plain restaurant for basic fare.

    • When you’re a woman, eating alone often means being bothered by men. Men who would never do such a thing are pretty unaware that plenty of their brothers see a lone woman with a target on her back, and believe it is their duty to try to change your alone status. If I’m eating alone at a hotel restaurant, it’s a guarantee a man will try to pick me up (often assuming I am a hooker, if the city is a large one like NY or LA). This never happens in the nicer class of restaurant.

  5. I think it does take guts to eat alone, especially as a woman. We’re kind of trained to think that someone eating alone is sad and lonely, rather than just a person with a craving for restaurant food. Kudos for doing your own thing and ignoring everyone else’s BS.

  6. Love this. The last time I went out to eat alone, I was fleeing my end-of-summer-nuts kid. When I asked for a table at the restaurant, the host said, “Just one, ma’am?” Yes, jackass. Just one.

  7. Pingback: Table for One, Dammit | Wonders of Enlightenment·

  8. Excellent piece of observation. Well done.
    I don’t think I’ve ever been to a posh restaurant to eat alone. To me restaurants = social occasions/meals with other people. No reason, though, why a woman – or a man – shouldn’t eat alone in one. Must say, I’f be more likely to go for a cafe or even a take-away chip shop.

  9. I love the subject and this is very well written! I have only done this a handful of times but have felt the same at each one. The last time a table of people invited me to join them and told me how sorry they were that I was eating alone. So shocking how against the rules it seems to enjoy a table for one!

  10. I love eating alone, actually I love doing a great many things alone, touring museums and especially visiting the theatre, no one gawps and gapes as I stroll around a museum or sit enthralled in the cinema but a table for one does make me feel like an alien, the stares, the quizzical eyebrows and worst of all the looks of pity. It’s all I can do to stop myself from announcing my enjoyment of alone time whilst I escape from the constant buzz of conversation. Alone does not mean lonely it just means I get a guilt free dessert all to myself.

  11. Sometimes I enjoy eating aloner. Whenever I am out shopping, looking, sightseeing or other it is refreshing to know I can pick what ever restaurant I want without quibbling over it. And since some of the restaurants I go know how I tip I get exceptional service. Sometimes people ask who am I because of the attention I get. That’s fun

  12. Beautifully written. I am the woman you describe, the one who says she would never be able to eat alone. Seeing people eat alone actually makes me really upset, because I imagine that something really horrible had to happen to them for them to be eating alone, when in reality they’re probably perfectly content with it. Maybe I should try it and be a little more comfortable with doing things alone.

  13. I’ve been eating on my own in restaurants for four decades. Not swanky places I admit; it’s usually the café down the road where I might have a grilled cheese and tomato sandwich and a pot of tea. I love social get togethers and family gatherings, but I also need my occasional alone time. . I’m not aware that anybody is being disapproving, but then I’ll be having my head down reading or I will haul out my note book and write. If I occasionally do look up and notice a sour glance in my direction I’d just assume that it must be that person’s problem, not mine.

  14. Women are, by nature, very communal beings. I think everyone realizes that and that may explain most people’s disconcerting reaction to seeing a woman eating alone in a restaurant. Many assume she is looking for the company she obviously lacks.

  15. I really enjoyed this post, i’ve done this many times and it’s a perfect time to enjoy your solitude and do some quality thinking…alone.

  16. “It is the kind of restaurant where the good lighting adds $15 to every entrée.” I love this sentence. It’s so funny and descriptive at the same time!

  17. I eat alone at restaurants a lot. Sometimes I take a book – not because I want to hide, but because I want to read it. Sometimes I don’t. I eat alone because, at that time, I am on my own (often with work, but not always); and I eat at restaurants because I enjoy nice food.

    I didn’t know there was a difficulty to it because noone told me there was! The first time I ate out on my own I was about 17, in my school uniform, at lunchtime, and I went into the pub round the corner from my school and had a jacket potato. People in my class were shocked but I assumed it was because I’d gone into a pub!

  18. What a delight to read. Congrats on being FP as well. You flooded my mind with so many views of this topic and you write so beautifully well. Back in the days of being a single male eating in restaurants alone I was inclined to eat my meal at the bar instead of in the fish bowl area. And yes, yes, yes people forget that reading lips is not limited to the deaf and I have been able to do this since early childhood. I used to hate seeing people look at me and mouthing “alone” remarks. If anyone knew I was alone at that time it was definitely me. Sometimes when asking to eat at the bar I was told a table would be better instead. Then they would insist. I would get pissed. There was no need for me to advertise that I was alone it was just so obvious. Thank God those days are gone now. I love your words and use of our language. Thank you for that fresh breeze Especially loved the use of the curtains. You certainly will be an interesting follow. Well done, no extremely well done.

  19. Pingback: Table for One, Dammit | Ferret Treasures·

  20. I love eating at restaurants alone, often as a break when out doing errands. However, I have never felt particularly noticed when doing this (or at least any more noticed than I would be when with friends). To me, it is such a non-issue that I find it really hard to understand the perspective of those who say they would feel uncomfortable eating alone. Interesting story.

  21. I loved the imagery – especially the lamb. A veteran of sitting out the lunch hour solo in coffee shops I remember the first time I went to the cinema on my own. The dangerous feeling of being out in a crowd of people without having to wait for someone, to fit my life around their schedule. I had a rolled up magazine in my bag the first time I went to the cinema alone, so that I wouldn’t stand out. I could pretend to read my magazine and look at my watch and tell the world a story of the girl who was stood up at the cinema as I waited for the doors to open. The second time I was bolder. I dropped my dripping brolly in the aisle and ordered a glass of wine, laughed my way through a tragic French film. I haven’t dared to go again. I feel there is no telling what I might do.

  22. Great read! It is a bit of a meditation to be alone with your own thoughts, smells, memories… I have a desire to take a vacation on my own. Just to be able to get up and go on my own schedule. Not a work trip, but a total relaxation vacation. Holy Moly, how amazing would that be!

  23. I will never stop eating alone. I wait for no one to take me to dinner and do what I want. People who don’t get that are sheep. Good for you!

  24. A few years ago my husband and I were dining in a beautiful restaurant in New Orleans. Everything was delicious and gorgeous and decadent and yum yum yum. In walks a woman. Alone. Seated near us, I couldn’t stop thinking of any number of events that led to her eating at that gorgeous restaurant alone. I asked her to join us. She declined so very politely, and I’ll never do that again: assume anyone wants to be saved from a delicious dinner for one by a meddling couple. Beautifully written!

  25. This was definitely a good read!! I, like you, enjoy eating alone! I definitely enjoy the whole not sharing dessert. It’s where my better writing emerges!! Looking forward to more reads!!!

  26. I like this, just as I enjoy eating alone. I like using the empty seat as an invitation to explore and look around; observe the other diners and ponder their lives. With a companion at the table, I’m chained to the conversation at hand no matter now dull.

    • Yes! While paired diners are feeling sorry for solo diners, wondering what ‘disaster’ befell them to compel them to eat alone, the solo diner is just as often observing couples and thinking ‘there but for the grace of god go I…”

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  28. Reblogged this on Saga of a Rural Scholar and commented:
    This very much describes my current life. As much as I enjoy going out with friends, none of us have a normal 9-5 Monday through Friday job, so finding time to get together is difficult. And I\’m not the sort of person to wait around for someone to go with me if I want to do something. I enjoy my own company & a lot of times I just want to get away from people. Going out by myself is a different, but still enjoyable, experience. I can take things at my own pace, get lost in my thoughts. Sometimes I wonder what people think, assuming they\’re paying me any attention at all. Do they admire my self-confidence for being able to go out alone? Do they think I must feel lonesome — which I don\’t? Do they wonder if I\’ve been stood up? Regardless, I just keep doing my own thing.

  29. Dank U Wel! I’ve been that girl having a meal and love that you shared the experience. I will be eating alone, again, in a large city and dammit I will enjoy it!

  30. Beautiful essay…. I used to dine alone a lot, it was the best part of being unhooked. I’ve never understood people who won’t go to a restaurant alone. I wonder what else in life they are missing!

  31. I love dining alone. Anytime I can join my husband on a business trip I jump at the chance because I get to see the sights and have meals alone and I have fun. Great post!!!

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