Sunday, September 27, 2009

Dining Solo

There are lots of times when Dave's schedule and mine don't overlap, leaving one person or the other to fend for themselves for food. Sometimes I'll try to rustle up a friend or get take-out and eat at home. But when the mood strikes me, I'll go out for a meal by myself.

I've always liked eating out on my own. You get to choose your own cuisine. You don't have to make reservations, wait around for people to gather or worry that someone won't like the food. A solo diner can slip into any restaurant pretty quickly because there are almost always seats at the bar. And when you're alone, trendy new places and popular favorites become a cinch to get into. There is a liberating sense of speed, simplicity, and mobility - you are unencumbered of the normal ritual and dance that comes when two or more diners try to go out.

But there are deterrents to eating alone. For instance, eating alone in the suburbs can be very different than eating alone in the city. I once went to a nice sit-down Italian place in a suburb near Cleveland by myself. The surprised host repeated, "One? Just one for dinner?" Which set the tone for the rest of the meal with my waiter directing multiple concerned glances in my direction throughout the entire evening. Luckily, New York City teems with solo diners, and I have not yet had to fend off incredulity here.

But you can get sabotaged of a tranquil dining experience even in the city. When your friends and family, the people most relaxing to eat with, are all busy, the next most relaxing situation is being alone with your own thoughts. Talking to strangers takes energy. I was once at Ippudo ordering my bowl of ramen at the bar after gleefully skipping a line of diners waiting with their friends for tables. The person next to me noted that I was alone, and asked if I came there often. I answered politely with a measured amount of crispness, smiled, and then turned back to my food. Some people get energized from talking to others, but at the end of a long day, when I am hungry and run-down, making small talk is pretty draining. The slight brusqueness is my equivalent of a "Do Not Disturb" sign, which some people, unfortunately, don't understand. After some time, the person asked if I had ever had the vegetable plate. It felt rude not to chat. So we did, but thankfully, I was near the end of my meal and was able to make a quick getaway.

The brilliant thing is that some people do understand. I was at Waverly Restaurant again for a solo brunch (I got the omelette with ham, tomato, and cheese this time, delicious, with molten yolk of egg scattered throughout, and a croissant instead of the toast, which they split in half and toasted!). I was doing what I normally do when alone - planning my upcoming day or ruminating on some past or future case - when a diner two seats down at the bar offered a section of the newspaper. I accepted, and so we came to share some kind of camaraderie as two fellow New Yorkers enjoying our respective homefries and coffee and peacefully reading through the Times. When I returned the newspaper to him, I thanked him and smiled, and he nodded back. It was a nice way to start a Sunday.

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