I admire confident, self-sufficient women. So why do I always pity any that I see eating alone in a fine restaurant?
"Boy, that's one confident, self-sufficient woman," I always think. "Wonder why she doesn't have any friends?"
I also think this about men. That's how I know that when I dine alone in a nice restaurant, people are thinking that about me. At least the other women in the room are. The guys are probably thinking, "How come she can't get a date? Probably has hairy legs or gross feet or something."
I'm not talking here about cafeterias and diners. You need no confidence at all to eat alone in a diner, especially if you have a book, magazine or newspaper. I'm talking places with three or more forks and several glasses next to each plate, and when someone sits down alone, a busboy comes and makes a big, attention-grabbing racket taking away extra place settings. Restaurants intended not just for eating, but for spending an evening dining. "With a companion" seems to me the obvious ending to that sentence.
But one of the tourism draws of Vancouver, where I happen to be, is great food and chic restaurants. As a travel writer, I can't just review burrito joints. (By the way, the best burritos in Vancouver are at Steamrollers, on Homer Street.)
"You have to try Bacchus in the Wedgewood Hotel," friends have told me. Since I'm staying at the Wedgewood this particular Saturday night, it's convenient. So I prepare: best clothes, new haircut. No one will even know about the pedicure and leg wax job. But at least when I imagine men thinking unkind thoughts about me, I'll know it's not true. I can walk in with my head held high.
One glance, though, and I want to flee for takeout. Bacchus isn't just lots of forks and glasses. There is a pianist, a roaring fireplace, private nooks with plush upholstered chairs at tables that each hold a single rose and lighted candle. At any moment I expect to see a man pull a small velvet box from his suit jacket and say to his companion, "Will you spend your life with me?"
The pianist is playing a medley of love songs as I walk across the restaurant with a waiter. I'm praying he doesn't have a cruel sense of humor and segue into "All by Myself," followed by "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," or "Could Die," or whatever that song is.
The waiter deftly offers me any empty table yet steers me toward the back, in a corner against a wall. I am grateful. I put my Vancouver guidebook on the edge of my table, where all the nearby couples can see that I'm from out of town. It's so much more pathetic to lack friends where you actually live than in a strange city. (Of course you can use the guidebook decoy close to home. Another thing I always do is keep glancing anxiously at my watch. Having people think I've been stood up makes me feel better than their thinking that no one would even go to the trouble of agreeing to meet me for dinner, even if they didn't mean it.)
I'm holding an unopened, leather-bound wine menu thinking such things and feeling jittery when the waiter returns to ask if I've made my wine selection.
"Red," I blurt, realizing immediately that I've made a stupid mistake. I've been dining at the Lebanese place in the Rockville strip mall too often.
The waiter recovers before I do. "May I suggest a nice pinot noir, or do you wish something bolder?"
Fully recovered myself now, I respond, "What year is the pinot noir?" I'm pretty sure I pronounced it right.
I study the appetizer menu and am drawn to the pan-seared sea scallops, caramelized leek and chicory tatin with pineapple and pepper relish. Whoo, $18! Okay, so it's Canadian money. Still, I take my second choice: wild mushroom soup, $10. I order the entree simultaneously, to save time: the grilled Alberta. They actually have a trademark next to the words "beef tenderloin."
I pull a notebook from my purse and start scribbling. Let everyone think I'm a food critic. People admire food critics.
The waiter returns with a basket full of bread. Hey, something good about dining alone! I get as much bread as the couples, but it's all for me.
I try to read my guidebook, but the brightest light in the place is the emergency exit sign. So I pretend to read, but really eavesdrop. I amuse myself by imagining leaning toward the woman at the next table and saying, "Excuse me, I couldn't quite hear your answer to his question."
That's plagiarized from the movie "Rent-A-Kid," where actor Leslie Nielsen leans so far back to eavesdrop that he nearly falls out of his chair, so he moves it to the next table and says, "Sorry, but I couldn't hear the last thing you said." The man huffily responds, "This is a private conversation!" Nielsen nods agreement before saying, "And private it shall remain."
That would be fun. But the waiter is here with the soup. Soon he's back with the entree. To his credit, he does the whole presentation show for an audience of one. "The beef tenderloin has a bleu cheese crust, on a bed of baby spinach with bacon. On the side," he says, pointing with his entire, upturned hand, "the braised rib on a bed of potato and horseradish puree."
I'm going to give this guy a big tip. Not because he's a great waiter, which he is, but to show that while I may be pathetic, I'm generous.
Hey, this food is incredible. And I've got my true first-choice entree because, when ordering, I didn't have a single thought about what my dining companion might like to taste from my plate. I'm starting to enjoy myself. I'm starting to pity the guy at the next table: His date has been dithering on and on about her sister, whom the guy clearly doesn't even know, let alone care about.
The hell with self-pity; I'm going to order dessert. I choose petit fours. And the waiter better show up with four petits. If he tries to pawn off two petits on me, I'm going to make a big attention-getting racket of my own.
But I get my four petits, and am feeling downright jolly.
Still, if I had to repeat a Vancouver meal all by myself, I'd be just as happy in my room, television on, pillows plump against the headboard, a hand towel across my chest to catch the drips from a really terrific burrito.