Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Table For One

Dining alone. Have you ever done it? I'm not talking about drinking your latte while you read a book at Starbucks, grabbing a quick bite to eat at a casual dining establishment or eating at the restaurant bar. I'm talking about perhaps making a reservation for a table for one then sitting down at a properly set table, ordering off the menu then leisurely eating your meal without turning to your iPhone or e-reader for companionship. Scary isn't it? Yes and no.

I used to be terrified of eating alone. The coffee shop with a book in hand was OK but anything beyond that was too much for me to handle. When I traveled for work I would resort to room service or perhaps eating at the hotel bar--not a table in the bar area mind you but the actual bar. Anything else felt like too much of a spectacle. I mean what if people looked at me and wondered what was wrong with me for not having a dining companion?

But then this got old. Whether traveling or in my home community I wanted to eat good food and didn't always having dining companions to join me. So I took the plunge and partook in my first solo dinner in public. I was traveling for work and room service didn't excite me. The hotel bar only served pub food and besides, I had read about a great restaurant in the city that I really wanted to try. I didn't know anyone and rather than skip what turned out to be a great meal, I went to the restaurant by myself. I had planned on eating at the bar but when the hostess lead me to a two-top table in the dining room, I followed her. At first I was a bit uncomfortable about sitting by myself but as I looked around I noticed that there were several other solo diners in the room. Some were reading but others were simply sitting and eating. If they could do it, so could I. And I did and found myself enjoying the food and the freedom of not having to carry on a conversation. It wasn't so hard after all. Then I started eating alone when I was at home. If I wanted to try a place and no one else was interested in joining me, I went by myself. As funny as this may sound, being able to eat out by myself was a completely liberating experience.

I'm a frequent follower of Tom Sietsema's weekly food chat in the Washington Post where the subject of dining solo is a hot topic. Callers often complain about the service, or lack there of, they receive when they are eating alone in restaurants. Many share their experiences of being regulated to poorly located tables, pushed into the bar even though they have a table reservation or shoddy service from waitstaff. Often they feel undervalued as single diners with women experiencing this inequity more than men. Have I experienced this myself? Sadly I have. I've been seated in back corners or even worse, near the entrance to the restrooms. When I look around many dining rooms that is where the smaller tables are located. Perhaps these table placements help restaurants best maximize their table space. But other times I've been seated front and center in the middle of the dining room. Sometimes the service has been great and other times it has been abysmal but I'm not sure it is a reflection of my dining status or the restaurant itself. I tip according to the service I receive and if I don't enjoy the experience I am unlikely to go back. I have found that some places are more receptive to solo, and woman, diners that others. In Albania eating out by myself was met with confusion by waitstaff while here in Belgium I see many women doing it. This is particularly true for lunch when I've seen entire restaurants filled with solo female diners. In America, depending on location, I have found it to be a mixed bag. Ironically, I have found that the higher end the restaurant, the better the experience. Perhaps their waitstaff is just better schooled in service......

Now I find myself enjoying my solo meals and don't let my being alone stop me from eating where I please. When eating by myself I can choose the restaurant of my liking based solely on my own food preferences and cravings. I can eat as slowly or as quickly as I like and the only food I have to worry about cutting up is my own. Depending upon the establishment I may pull out my e-reader but increasingly I find myself not reading anything and using the opportunity to be absorbed in my own thoughts. Or I will people watch which in the right place can be more interesting than the best dinner companions. Yes, dining alone may feel intimidating at first but go ahead and give it a chance. You just might find that you enjoy it as much as I do.

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