The below full-length version of Table for One, by Geoff Nicholson, appears in the current issue of Gourmet Live. Download the free Gourmet Live app to get this story and more.
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I went to Musso and Frank Grill last week, one of my favorite restaurants, and Hollywood’s oldest, dating from 1919. I ate there alone and I didn’t try to find anybody to go with me. I realized that the maximum pleasure I could get at that moment was to sit alone on a red leather banquette at one of Musso’s smaller tables, to order a martini, a steak and a glass of red wine, to be served by the serious, unfussy waiters, to take my time, to linger, to savor the food and the atmosphere, and to enjoy it in a way that wouldn’t quite have been possible if I’d had company. It was perfect.
I wouldn’t always have felt that way. I once regarded eating alone in public as humiliating torture. In fact there was a time when I longed for Warhol’s idea for the Andy-Mat chain of restaurants to conquer the world. His concept was brilliantly simple. The restaurants were to be somewhat like the old automats, with food bought from coin operated machines, but in Warhol’s version, once you’d got your food, you scurried away into a booth for one, and watched television as you ate.
This may initially have been some jokey, throwaway conceit that Warhol dreamed up while writing From A to B and Back Again, but before long he’d found financial partners, an architect to design the interiors, and Loulou de la Falaise to devise a menu. They even had a location for the first one, on Madison Avenue at 74th street, due to open in the fall of 1977. But it never happened. Reading between the lines it sounds as though everything got way too complicated (there were half-baked ideas about orders being sent to the kitchen via pneumatic tubes), or maybe everybody just sobered up. In any case it all fell through, which I used to think was a terrible shame, but now I’m not so sure.
In retrospect it seems that by far the biggest obstacle facing the enterprise was Warhol’s proposed slogan: “The Restaurant for the Lonely Person.” I just don’t think anybody wants to be defined as a lonely person, and if you are genuinely lonely, then going out to a restaurant and sitting alone in a booth, watching reruns of, say, Two And A Half Men would surely make you feel absolutely desolate.
More than that—and here’s why I edged away from the Warholian concept—why should the solitary diner have to hide away in a booth? Why can’t a singleton go into a restaurant, have a table for one, and enjoy all the pleasures that eating out has to offer? And the obvious answer, of course, is that he or she can, and I am proof of this. It took some time, training, and self-discipline, and there were certainly some hiccups along the way, but it’s a skill I’m very glad to have acquired.
The first thing to overcome is that feeling that people in the restaurant are looking at you with contempt, thinking what a loser you are. Well, as your mother might have told you, this kind of self-consciousness is really just arrogance. Chances are you’re not the main focus of other people’s attention, and if you are then they’re far more pathetic than you.
The next thing to overcome is other people’s pity, especially that of the waitstaff. You know things are bad when the waitress speaks to you in soothing, reassuring tones as though you’ve experienced some recent tragedy or trauma. If you have in fact experienced some recent tragedy or trauma this must be far, far worse.
The best way of defusing both contempt and pity is to be totally unapologetic, to behave as though eating alone is the most natural thing in the world—because it is. If you present yourself as confident and self-possessed, if you behave like someone who’s happy to eat alone, then others will accept that’s exactly what you are. In the early stages this may be just an act, but sooner or later the act becomes the thing itself.
Generally, the more serious and grown up a restaurant, the more likely it is to make the solo diner feel welcome. A table for one at Hooters probably isn’t going to be the most comfortable experience, but the staff at Sardi’s in New York or Fergus Henderson’s St. John in London are going to take it completely in their stride. The food will admittedly be rather more intriguing at the latter, roast marrow bone for instance, as opposed to Sardi’s Jumbo Lump Crabcakes. And you’d imagine that any Gordon Ramsay restaurant would be OK since, if Kitchen Nightmares is to be believed, Ramsay himself spends half his life eating alone, though I suppose we’d all feel less alone if we had a camera crew with us.
I understand the need for props—a laptop or a cell phone for instance—but playing Angry Birds as you wait for the food to come just makes you look like a twerp. As for checking tweets and Facebook messages, well that does raise the question: If you’re part of such a great social network, how come nobody will be seen eating in public with you?
You’re probably better off with a book, but you have to be careful what you choose. Reading Proust with your sushi is just pretentious. As for that wonderful scene in Scorsese’s After Hours where Griffin Dunne recognizes Rosanna Arquette as a potential soulmate because she’s in a restaurant reading Tropic of Cancer, well that’s just pure wishful fantasy. And as you may remember, that movie meeting results in a lost night in lower Manhattan from which the hero barely escapes with his life.
And as a matter of fact it was largely in Lower Manhattan that I taught myself to eat alone, in places such as Gonzalez y Gonzalez, Jerry’s, the Canteen, Marian’s, most of them now gone. One that remains, and one of my very favorites, is Noho Star on Lafayette Street. It’s been in existence for 25 years but I’ve only been going there for about half that time. One of the great attractions here for a man dipping his toe in the waters of solo dining is that each table has a spotlight above it so that a tight cone of illumination lights up the table and your plate of Bill’s Special Baked Meatloaf, while leaving the solitary diner discreetly in the shadows.
In New York I ate alone out of necessity because I hardly knew anybody when I first arrived there. Naturally that changed after a while, but circumstances can make solo diners of us all, especially when we’re tourists or on business trips. Being away from home also allows you to play the suave, international man of mystery. Admittedly this is easier in some places than others.
I remember a night when I was in Tampa doing some research, and I wound up in the Ranch House Grill right down the road from my motel. The walls were festooned with taxidermy, wagon wheels, and displays of lassoes. The place was quiet, the waitresses were warm without being intrusive and it was really terrific. But if it hadn’t been, well so what? I’d never been there before, I’d never go there again: it really didn’t matter what the staff thought of me or what I thought of them. I would have survived a disaster, but I was glad to do much more than survive.
On another occasion I found myself in Alice Springs on a Saturday night, looking for somewhere to eat. I was now playing at being Bruce Chatwin. Every restaurant in town was packed and rowdy and none looked like the place for a solitary diner, but eventually I found The Overlanders Steakhouse. They didn’t have a table for one but they seated me at the “Overlanders Table” alongside twenty or so other desert waifs and strays. The prospect horrified me—all the anxiety of eating alone, along with all the anxiety of socializing with a bunch of complete strangers. But in the end it was fine. Before long we were all friends and I was eating the best camel steak I’ve ever had. Of course, what constitutes a fun idea when you’re in the middle of the Australian outback, mightn’t be so appealing when you’re home. It looks, however, as though I may have to get used to it.
Having taught myself to eat alone, I find that communal dining is becoming a widespread and supposedly exciting trend. One of the hottest new restaurants in Los Angeles is A-Frame, lodged in a former International House of Pancakes. Early reviews described it as hyper-casual which sounded fine, but then I read that owners Roi Choi and David Reiss wanted to create a “family-style dining environment;”, which of course begs the question of which family: The Kardashians, the Borgias, the Mansons? But I finally knew this restaurant wasn’t for me when Reiss said in an interview: “We wanted people to eat with their hands and share, and we wanted it to be full-on communal everything. People are sharing with people who they’ve never talked to in their lives, and that’s really cool for us.” Whether it’s really cool for the people doing the sharing remains to be seen. I guess I won’t be going to find out.
I accept, naturally, that sharing tables isn’t exactly a novelty. We’ve all shared tables at school, college and work, often with people we’d prefer to avoid. The long, refectory table was first used by medieval monks, and mimicked a millennium or so later by the Belgo restaurant chain when it set up shop in London in the early 1990s. (There was a short-lived New York version later in the decade). With Belgo however, there was always so much else going on—the waiters in monks’ habits, quotations from Rabelais carved into the walls, the raspberry flavored beers—that you accepted the communal table as just another eccentricity. And I’m sure that fans of Le Pain Quotidian accept their communal tables as part of the “philosophy.”
You could also argue that some restaurants are so cramped and the tables so close together that you essentially end up sharing anyway. And certainly if you’re one of the lucky few who gets a reservation at David Chang’s Momofuku Ko—just 12 seats arranged around a counter—you’re bound to be brought into some kind of intimacy with your fellow diners, like it or not.
I can certainly see the attractions of very small restaurants, and I started fantasizing about a restaurant for one, with one table and one chair and a small but very attentive staff. As far as I know, no such establishment exists but I have discovered a restaurant that only accommodates two customers per night (though I confess I haven’t been there). It’s the Solo Per Due (which translates as Just for Two) in Vacona, in central Italy. It is actually part of a large estate complete with Roman ruins, but while eating you have the tiny dining room entirely to yourself, and waiters are so discreet they have to be summoned by a bell. Discretion aside, the restaurant also prides itself on providing special services, offering to lay on personalized flower arrangements and firework displays.
Solo Per Due is intended for that once in a lifetime romantic dinner for two but I can’t help wondering how they’d react if you booked the table and turned up by yourself. This would surely be taking solo dining to its furthest extreme. I also wonder just how far the special services extend. I wonder if they’d be prepared to supply a TV for you to watch while eating.
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