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September 13th, 2013

Adventures in Dining Alone

A couple of evenings ago, I had the pleasure (yes, that’s right) of eating alone in a restaurant. I’ve mentioned it before, but my recent turn as a nomad has taught me to enjoy dining solo at new establishments. Usually I like to eat at the bar and chat with whoever’s there. This particular night, though, I happened to be at a place that didn’t offer much of a bar situation and so I sat at a regular table.

Nothing wrong with that. Except for how large the table looks when you’re the only one sitting there. I had three different waitresses come by and ask, with big, puppy dog eyes, “How are we doing here…?” One leaned down so close to me and affected such a deeply sympathetic tone that I was expecting her to follow up with, “Is there someone we can call for you?”

Even the hostess thought I needed cheering up. She kept looking over at me and smiling super wide every time we made eye contact. Not because she was happy to be connecting with me. More because, in her mind, it was so obviously the “right” thing to do. You see, hostesses are used to seating groups or couples. When I walk in alone, I’m always met with a subtle double-take. “Is it just… you… or…?” I always say, “Yup, just me!” with extra cheer in my voice, so they know I’m extra fine with it.

Because I am fine with. Nothing sad at all about being pitied by an entire restaurant staff. Including the busboy, who whisked away the extra place setting without thinking, then set it back down, and, hand still clasped around the silverware, asked, “Oh. Um. Are you waiting for someone?” When I shook my head no, because my mouth was full of sparkling lemonade, he grabbed the place setting back up again and scuttled off to the kitchen. (Or the cave where he keeps the stolen silverware. He might not have worked there, now that I think about it. He wasn’t wearing the same color as everyone else.)

Waitstaff doesn’t always quite know how to handle the solo diner. Particularly in closer quarters. I was once seated next to an elderly woman and her 40-something son. There wasn’t much space between the tables and, even though I had my back to them and was playing Tiny Tower on my iPhone, the waitress kept treating us as though we were all one group. What must she have thought about our relationship? I was either the sister no one really wanted or liked, or the girlfriend who didn’t want to be there at all. Or else I was a surly vagrant they invited to dinner just so they could get three-for-one “apps” before seven pm. I don’t know. But I had to tell the waitress, like, three times that we weren’t a group, because those sumbitches ordered about four drinks each and one of them had a steak. I did not want to be stuck with their bill.

The other thing about dining alone, smashed in among people you’ve never met, is that all of them have brought along dining companions to chat with. You, on the other hand, have no one to talk to, and so everyone else’s conversation seems about fourteen times louder. I realize there is that classic Larry David bit about the lone diner being a definite eavesdropper, but, I can tell you from experience, I don’t WANT to hear what you’re talking about. I just can’t NOT hear what you’re talking about. The other night, for instance, the gentleman on my right simply would not stop talking about Jeffrey Katzenberg. JEFFREY KATZENBERG. I mean, he had like fifty stories about him. And in every single one, he called him by both names, “Jeffrey” and “Katzenberg.” Never just “Jeffrey” or “Jeff” or “J-Katz,” which is absolutely what he should be called. The rest of the people at his table were nodding and smiling, eagerly awaiting each new Jeffrey Katzenberg tale. That was on my right.

On my left was a girl loudly professing her love for Cormac McCarthy through a mouthful of quinoa. I’m pretty sure if ol’ Cormac knew she was eating quinoa, instead of something robed in cheese he’d hit her between the eyes with a cattle gun. (This is the image I have of Mr. McCarthy in my head; if you know otherwise, please don’t ruin it for me.) She was going on and on about how Blood Meridian is probably the best thing she’s ever read. And, hey, that’s a sound opinion and one I respect. It’s just that, when she said it, it sounded like “Bwud Mah-wid-uhn,” and then a violent, grain-tainted cough.

Imagine the Quinoa Book Review and the Fans of Jeffrey Katzenberg weekly meeting in stereo. Then add cheesecake.

That was my night.

All in all, not so bad.

So, if you can get past the unwarranted pity and the unending drivel going on around you, eating by yourself in a non-bar situation is actually kind of relaxing. Bring a book, or some files to make yourself look important. Just be prepared for everyone on the payroll to weep openly if you accidentally drop your fork or have a small coughing fit because a piece of tilapia went down the wrong way. Seeing you that vulnerable would just be too much for them to handle.

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