November 8, 2012 | Narrative
Eating Well Enough Alone
the life of the party of one
article by rémy robert
When I traveled to Copenhagen last fall, I scrambled to make a last-minute reservation at Noma, the restaurant ranked #1 in the world by Restaurant magazine for three years and counting. It was a shot in the dark: Noma has an entire page on its website dedicated to explaining its reservation policy, which tells you something about how elusive it is. Tables are reserved months in advance, and “on days that the reservations book opens for a new month,” warns the site, “the system can become overloaded … Please note that it can be hard to get through on the phone as well.”
The polite disclaimers are about as reassuring as a casual “thanks” in response to a proclamation of undying romantic love. Not to be deterred, I frantically signed up for every spot on the waiting list for lunch. A chorus of angels sang from the grey Danish heavens when Noma’s maître d’ called me the next day to tell me a spot had opened up.
That I snagged my table was not a stroke of luck. It was because I had requested a table for one. This was largely practical—I could find no one else who was ready to blow their summer savings on a lunch date—but it was also strategic. Demand for one-tops is low. The stigma on dining alone goes back to kindergarten, where the cool kids eat in crowds and the losers eat in the corner. It’s perpetuated by this glimmering ideal we have of eating as a communal activity (one that is unfounded in the realities of fast food and cubicle lunch).
People feel awkward about dining alone. They’re worried it’ll look like they’ve been stood up. They’re worried people will dance nervously around them and feel sorry for them. We’re okay doing most other things—shopping, moviegoing, traveling—on our own, but rarely does our solitude make us so anxious as in restaurants. Most rhapsodic tales of dining alone are travelogues: people exploring the world, amped to go stag to the Tuileries or the Great Wall but terrified to sit down by themselves at a restaurant. Eventually, hunger prevails, and over lunch at a sidewalk bistro they see the light.
I, too, had my first solo meal while traveling. When I was abroad in Paris, a pickpocket stole my purse. The next morning, I successfully filed the first police report of my life (in a second language, no less). To celebrate, I went to lunch at a tucked-away café I’d read about. I mumbled to the waifish French waitress that I’d be eating alone and tried to keep my composure as she seated me—a waiter’s service feels showy and absurd when the audience is one. I managed to order a bowl of risotto with aged Parmesan and acorn-fed Spanish ham. The waiting was the hardest. I had brought a book, but I felt so jittery that I had to read each paragraph three or four times before it registered.
When the food came, I realized how odd it was to pick up my fork and tuck in so quietly and unceremoniously. I enjoyed the risotto—velvety, with little salt crystals from the cheese and bites of ham so sweet and nutty it bordered on caramel—with more deliberation than if I’d had company. I enjoyed it more purely, too, even as I struggled to wield the fork with one hand and keep my paperback open with the other.
Eating alone changes the rhythm of things. It’s a break from the nonstop conversations and activity. I’m used to listening to Spotify while I write papers, reading PDFs while I Facebook chat and eat a bagel, playing Solitaire while I’m in lecture. Sure, I always take a book when I eat alone, but then that’s the extent of my multitasking. I am an introvert surrounded by the restaurant’s chaos, conducting a gloriously private activity in a high-energy public space.
Far from awkwardly dancing around me, people often are so charmed by my solo dining that they befriend me and give me things. At Noma, I received an extra dessert—a “snowman” of elderflower sorbet—because I’d asked what they were eating at the next table over. At lunch in a farm café in New York, I noticed a vanilla bean panna cotta only after I had paid, so the guy behind the counter gave it to me on the house. Service is more attentive: I get to banter with the waiters, who appreciate that I like their restaurant enough to go without social pretext.
It’s easy and fun, at college, to turn every meal into a social event. But sometimes it’s nice to be alone with your cheeseburger. Bring a book or a journal or a copy of Post- (hate to tell ya, but staring off into space will justifiably freak out the other diners), and dammit, put your phone away. You can meet up with your friends at Jo’s later.
Illustration by Grace Sun