The scene was one of those hamburger-and-Heineken places on 20th Street, the kind with a slapstick name but dead serious prices. I had been interviewing someone at a nearby office building, and when I finished, I realized I'd forgotten to have lunch.
Never one to allow that oversight to persist, I walked into a place we'll call Twenty-Three Skiddoo's. The hostess smiled nicely. She motioned with a hand full of menus toward the rack in the corner, where I could hang my coat. And then she asked:
Now, I've done a lot of traveling in my life as a newspaperist. In the process, I've eaten a lot of solo meals in a lot of places. In addition, for many years here at home, I did my best to avoid my own cooking by going to restaurants. Also solo.
Add them up, and you've got thousands of meals for one. And in all those repetitions of the charade where customer-approaches-hostess, I can't remember very many times when people at the door haven't acted disappointed to discover that I wasn't two, or three, or four, and wasn't going to be.
Is it greed on the greeter's part? I don't think so. Any restaurant should be glad to have even one customer if the chair he occupies would otherwise sit vacant. Wishing he were two or more is a waste of time.
Is it an effort on the part of the hostess to be clever and breezy? If so, it's misaimed. Many people feel that every meal eaten alone in public is an admission that life is passing them by. To try to make light of what may be a customer's heavy feelings is risky, indeed.
Is it simply the modern habit of using two words where one would do? That's my suspicion. Weather forecasters say "thunderstorm activity" when just the first word would do. Sportscasters describe a "really great play" when the first word could easily go unspoken. In the same unthinking, reflexive way, hostesses say, "just one."
But they could avoid it. And they should. We solo restaurant-goers have swallowed a lot of annoyance over the years. Hosts and hostesses can swallow the word "just."