"DRESS WELL and wear a hat," said a woman who dines alone frequently. "Make reservations and sweep in. Act as if you are used to it."
I had no hat with me in Parma, Italy, when I made reservations at the best restaurant in town for Saturday night. In my grandest clothes, with a paperback novel tucked unobtrusively in my purse for emergencies, I swept into the small restaurant, early enough that most tables were still empty. The maitre d'hotel greeted me, acknowledged my reservation and, with a sweep that far outdid mine, showed me to a table. In the basement. The empty basement.
Words escaped me, even in English. Was I to dine in that room alone? The maitre d' insisted that more people would be coming, and hastily backed up the stairs. He was right. Within the hour another table was occupied -- by three drunken and rowdy men in leather jackets who were thus my sole companions for the evening.
Dining alone, presumably unless you are Thomas Jefferson, is second best to almost any other dining arrangement imaginable. Eating alone is bearable, often even preferable. But dining alone -- that is, lingering and savoring, having a meal of civilized proportions, in a public place no less -- leaves stretches of time for which no appropriate activity has been devised. You can read, but it is hardly fair to accompany Chez Mom's apple pie with Proust's madeleines -- or vice versa. And perusing the stock quotations is a little too obvious a bid for VIP service. You could take notes, but you might be real restaurant critics never take notes in restaurants; in fact, one day at Kramerbooks every diner except the restaurant critic was taking notes).
No, the challenge is not to find an escape from the fact that you are dining alone, but to face it head on.
First you'll have to snag a table. No restaurant likes to waste a whole table on a single diner. The minute you mention that you are alone, the restaurant is likely to find itself fully booked, and you may have to reserve for a companion who never shows up. It helps to dine very early and quickly, or to arrive without a reservation so late that the restaurant cannot pretend another party is coming to fill its empty table.
As Food Service Marketing magazine described the single diner, "Labeled an 'inconvenience' at best, he or she wastes space at a four-top [table for four], commands the attention of a server who could be catering to a larger party instead, and quite often 'makes demands' on a host to be seated upfront -- almost in defiance of the idea of being seated near the kitchen." True enough; author Abigail McCarthy has said that her sister, who herself runs three dozen restaurants, when dining alone always refuses the first table she is offered.
Enterprising restaurants do away with singles not by refusing their business but by turning them into groups. Americans traveling alone in Europe are familiar with the matchmaking maitre d' who suggests that they might like to join another American who also happens to be alone. And indeed sometimes they might, as long as it is an option, not a requirement. Some restaurants have established Club Tables or Captain's Tables, where single diners are seated as groups. Marriott Hotels, giving single diners a choice of private tables or Captain's Tables, have found group seating sufficiently popular that they have occasionally had to set up a second table for the overflow. Marriott discovered, though, that group seating never works at breakfast, when people who are alone simply want to be alone.
Of course, some restaurants are all Club Tables. At Japanese steak houses friends and strangers sit together around the stovetop table. A romantic evening a deux on the cruise ship Dandy can turn out to be at a table a quatre. And even at 209 1/2 one Saturday night we found two of us sharing a table with two of them. Boston's Durgin Park restaurant, with its long and crowded tables, is probably the world's largest sitdown college mixer. The American Cafe has been known to go a step further: One waitress admitted to routinely adjusting the pace of the meal when two singles started conversing so that they could finish and leave together. "We're known for that," she boasted. But there is nothing more awkward than having to share a table with someone when you don't want to talk, so the matchmaking clearly needs to be optional.
Even assuming one is choosing a restaurant for its culinary rather than its social possibilities, some kinds of restaurants are automatically more comfortable for lone diners. Outdoor cafes are ideal; there is the whole street scene to keep one occupied between courses. Likewise, restaurants with a focal point, whether a tandoor oven or a go-go dancer, provide a visual activity to minimize the accidental locking of eyes with that couple in the corner you were staring at. In general, busy restaurants are less awkward for lone diners than those where the loudest sound is your crunching the carrot sticks.
For many lone diners ordering is the highlight of the meal. There is the menu to read -- a legitimate and lengthy diversion from staring at the wallpaper. And the waiter to talk to. In fact, it is at the point of ordering that one sets the stage for the meal. One can enlist the waiter's expertise, solicit his advice, ask intelligent questions that give him the opportunity for intelligent answers, establish yourself as a patron worthy of his attention. If you want to hurry through a potentially painful evening, ask him what is fastest, and thereby make understood your desire to eat and run. If you want to linger, order the souffle' for dessert and the beef wellington that is specified as requiring a half-hour wait. If you are really bold, you can ask the people at the next table about what they ordered and thereby strike up a conversation that can be renewed when it is time to order dessert. And one supposes a truly courageous extrovert could send a note to the lone diner at the other end of the room asking whether he would like to share the rack of lamb for two.
Don't forget to request the wine list. There aren't likely to be many half-bottles in it for a moderate-drinking lone diner, but it is valid reading matter and does establish you as someone sophisticated enough to know that wine, like liquor, comes in various brands.
The Magic Pan did a survey of diners who ate alone and found that one of the foremost improvements they would like from restaurants was offering a choice of wines by the glass. Most diners, they also discovered, didn't like to dine alone, especially at dinner, but they didn't want special seating for singles or to be forced to share tables, and they disliked being seated with another lone diner facing them. Over 80 percent of those surveyed wanted restaurants to give them fast service; they also wanted more attention from the server. Service is crucial to the lone diner, but to some that means being fussed over, to others it means being left alone; some prefer rapid service, others a sense of not being rushed. Tricky business for a restaurateur.
If headwaiters tend to embarrass a lone diner by continually looking for his absent companion, lone diners place a burden on the restaurant when they expect the staff to be their companions. Less than a third of the diners in the Magic Pan's survey said they read a book or paper at dinner. Jean Pierre Goyenvalle's restaurant, Le Lion d'Or, only occasionally gets lone diners, but has had one man who came regularly enough to be spending as much as $500 a month all alone. "Men are tough customers," Goyenvalle once remarked about lone diners; they want to talk to the staff, to have their company. Women, he contrasted, are easier, pleasanter, keep to themselves; they also linger longer, while men alone tend to eat fast. Usually lone diners come early, he had found, and even at Le Lion d'Or most bring a book and read.
If a lone diner wants a quick and anonymous dinner, he can always eat at a fast-food place, and indeed most do. But once a restaurant of elegance is chosen, even the lone diner ought to enjoy it at sufficient leisure. One restaurateur has noticed that lone diners who don't like eating alone order more food, presumably to have more to do. In any case, one trick for enhancing the unaccompanied meal is to pause before starting to eat. Otherwise you just might gulp down the whole meal before the waiter arrives with the peppermill. Stop between bites and survey the scene. While it may be awkward to stare, listening is unobtrusive.
You may find that the quality of conversation going on around you makes you glad to be alone. You probably will discover new subtleties to the arrangement of the romaine in the house salad. The nuances of the wine, the texture of the bread, the feel of the table linen and the aroma of the soup undoubtedly will be heightened.
Just ask anybody who dines alone. There are all kinds of hidden rewards, opportunities for growth and self-knowledge. Everyone who has tried it has learned the thrill of meeting a challenge, or the satisfaction of developing a new technique. And nearly every lone diner has the same discovery to report: "Dining alone is the worst time of day."