Food & Thought: Column
When I Dine Alone
AMERICA’S FIRST FOOD WRITER TAUGHT HERSELF HOW TO ENJOY EATING OUT ALONE. COULD I?
by Brittani Sonnenberg
Illustration by Heather Sundquist
After reading Fisher’s bold lines above, something in my heart—or maybe it was my stomach—stirred. Yes, I thought. That’s it. Fisher penned the passage in 1938, but she put a finger on something that I, and many friends (particularly women), have trouble with in 2017: dining out alone. Yet in Fisher’s smug self-description, I also had the tingling feeling of spying on a future, freer version of myself. One who shook off that “weak and distasteful” air of “convalescence” when approaching the host’s stand. One who sailed into any restaurant with saucy ease, who ordered with impudence and impunity, whose solitary, white-napkinned presence oozed appetite, not apology.
I’m an introvert, so solo activities—walking, reading, traveling—come naturally. But dining alone is different. It feels like staging my solitude, training a spotlight on my single gal status. It suggests a lot of uncomfortable “L” words, the kind of thing Trump might tweet about me sitting alone in a café: lonely, lame, loser.
But why? What is it about unaccompanied dining that feels so dangerous and ill-advised, like swimming alone in the ocean? Does the fact of one’s oddball eating silently destabilize something in a restaurant’s atmosphere: some neat promise of coupling and company? We all die alone. Does dining alone—or the sight of someone doing so—urge silent existential crises?
Despite my dread of the act, after reading Fisher’s essay, I badly wanted to learn how to do it, the way she had apparently taught herself. I would begin my own eating-out-alone lessons. Bolstered by Fisher’s insouciance, I dialed Uchi, and booked a table for one on Friday night at nine.
At 8 p.m. that Friday eve, I began my preparations, heart thumping. I felt like I was on a first date… with myself. What should I wear? How should I act? What if it was a disaster? My survival, I decided, lay in emergency supplies. I proceeded to pack my purse like I was headed for a day at the beach, or a long airplane ride: iPhone, book (“Last House,”by Fisher), magazine (Bust). I showered and donned a new teal shift, silly f loral silk knee socks, and a comforting white cashmere cardigan that feels like a long hug.
Then I was striding into Uchi, trying to banish rapidly rising feelings of weakness.
“I’m afraid the spot at the sushi bar is still occupied by a gentleman who got fairly chatty with another diner,” the hostess said, with a small frown. “But we can offer you a table, or you can wait on the bar seat.”
“I’ll take the table,” I said, with a rush of relief, and followed a handsome millennial host to my designated spot.
Seated across from no one but my own fears, I shot a quick glance around the room. To my left was a raucous foursome: two married couples in their late thirties, gossiping about real estate. In front of me, two women intimately leaned in on what looked like a fifth date. Then a shadow darkened my table. My waitress had arrived.
I studied the menu with what I hoped was an expert manner. “I’m intrigued by the sake that’s described as ‘clean winter air,’” I said. “Ah yes, the otokoyama. That’s our driest,” she said.
I hesitated. This was my cue to ask savvy sake questions, but I had none. “Uh, great. I’ll have a glass of that,” I stammered. I felt like an underprepared high school student with a long-suffering SAT tutor.
I scoured the dinner menu after she left, determined to do better on the next part of the exam. Not that this was a test! I was here to have a great time! I smiled broadly so everyone who happened to glance my way would know that I was having a blast.
The waitress returned with the sake. “Any ideas on what you’d like to eat?”
“Oh yes,” I bluffed. “And then maybe you can suggest some of your favorites?”
“Sure,” she said.
I ordered one oyster, a piece of salmon belly sushi, and a piece of king crab nigiri. She raised an eyebrow: I’d literally ordered three bites of food. “Um,” I hedged. “What else would you recommend?”
She nudged me towards the wagyu beef makimono, a seasonal fish dish with a tom kha broth, and a yellowtail starter with chili and ponzu.
Here’s the thing about dining alone at a fancy restaurant: without anyone to talk to, it’s mostly a waiting game. And unless you’re a Buddhist monk, gazing meditatively into the middle distance, staring straight ahead until your food has arrived is downright awkward. I love people-watching, but it’s best done with a human shield: i.e., a dining companion. Staring at people while sitting alone feels like a zoo animal staring down zoo visitors. Doesn’t the zebra have better things to do?
“But in between dishes, I must admit, I also felt abandoned, rawly exposed, a kid at a middle school dance waiting out another slow song, trying not to look desperate for my next partner.”
I resisted the urge to rely on my phone and stared longingly at the boisterous sushi bar, where diners seemed to be having a boisterous time. I sipped my sake, silent. “Winter air” was a stretch, but it did taste clean, and spacious, an empty sunlit room. I wondered how that vein of description would work on a wine list. Chardonnay: Cluttered broom closet.
A few minutes later, my first dish materialized: the “hama chili.” I belatedly wiped my hands with the wet towel and started scrubbing my face before remembering that I was not in a darkened airplane cabin. Then I leaned over the inaugural plate with my chopsticks.
And this is where the night suddenly grew dreamy. Without anyone to talk to, or to awkwardly split the appetizer with, the delicate, blushing-pink slices of yellowtail were all mine, from the tuna’s first light touch on my tongue, to its soft give and unctuous swell, to its dart down my throat, punctuated by a parting wave of ponzu.
In a few bites, the fish had disappeared, but as its siblings arrived, over the next hour, I realized that these were my unexpected dining companions, my familiars, whom I greeted with delight, and whose time at the table was all too fleeting. The loud restaurant and my self-consciousness disappeared, shrinking my world to a briny oyster kiss, an indulgent mouthful of king crab and butter, a brazen bite of steak, and the soothing, flirtatious tom kha broth.
But in between dishes, I must admit, I also felt abandoned, rawly exposed, a kid at a middle school dance waiting out another slow song, trying not to look desperate for my next partner.
Halfway through my meal, another waitress stopped by and asked me how the king crab was.
“Amazing,” I said, blushing, as grateful as a foreign exchange student approached by a popular kid in the cafeteria. By the time I had tucked away the sakana mushi, it was 9:30, and I was growing exhausted by my efforts. It would have been a perfectly respectable time to go home. But no. I decided to do Fisher proud, and ordered the jizake crème caramel. After that, I couldn’t stand another minute of affecting breezy nonchalance, so I opened my book and read happily.
Fifteen minutes later, dessert still hadn’t come, and I’d finished two chapters, straining my eyes in the dim mood lighting. It was time for the classic emergency time-out: the bathroom. In the stall, I breathed a sigh of relief. Finally! A space in Uchi where I was supposed to be alone.
Back in the dining room, the crème caramel finally arrived, and proved scrumptious. I scooped up every last lick of sauce.
Then I paid the bill, and walked out, having spent more on myself tonight than any restaurant prior. My stomach hummed with satisfaction. Okay, so the whole night hadn’t been exactly relaxing. I hadn’t made a bunch of new friends at the sushi bar, or gained the awe and respect of the wait staff for my game-changing ordering. Some moments, waiting on another dish to come, hearing loud laughter around me, felt downright harrowing.
But I’d never lost my appetite. That, I decided, meant I was well on my way.
I walked through the warm, inky air to my car, feeling giddy. My next assignment would be a meal at a beautiful restaurant bar. Maybe Justine’s, next Thursday night? I would start with a French 75, along with the escargots, and then the French fries…