King Louis XIV did it.
M. F. K. Fisher did it.
The faceless man in Edward Hopper’s painting, “Nighthawks,” did it.
Mr. Bean did it, too.
And so did I.
Daring to eat a proper meal alone in public probably ranks as one of the few acts that cause normally confident people to quiver a little. It dredges up memories of being the new kid at school, faced with walking into the cafeteria and eating all by your lonesome.
So public, so humiliating, and so painful. For many of us, anyway.
The idea of eating alone in public is still so abhorred that a quick search of the Internet brought up several pieces like “How to Eat Alone at a Restaurant” and “Is a Woman Eating Alone an Act of Bravery?” Most recommend taking a book or a magazine and sitting at the counter if there is one. That way, supposedly, those desiring conversation can indulge by talking to the person next to them.
New Zealand broadcaster Brian Edwards wrote on the blog Media on March 1, 2010:
“Eating, as Desmond Morris (author of The Naked Ape) told us on the telly some years ago, is not merely a means of keeping the body alive, it is essentially a social activity, a group activity. One may eat alone in the privacy of one’s own home, but to eat alone in a public place, is to invite suspicion of personal failure at best and deviancy at worst.”
To test the hypothesis—put forward by some of the commentators on these pieces—that eating alone at a restaurant is no big deal today, I decided to go all out and try it on a trip to Washington DC.
I’ll confess that I gave myself a bit of a pep talk when I walked into José Andrés’s El Jaleo on 7th Street, NW. “Lie back and think of England” (e.g., “relax”) wasn’t working, so I mentally gravitated to Louis XIV and his opulent meals at Versailles.
Of course, King Louis had an excuse: he was king and close to being a god to boot (after all, he could touch a person with scrofula [Tuberculous cervical lymphadenitis] and heal them, or so the legend went, le toucher des écrouelles.)* By the 1690s, Louis ate dinner (midday meal) in private, au petit couvert, surrounded by circles of family and courtiers standing, their presence radiating out from his table according to their importance at court. But he took his evening meal au grand couvert, a ritualized process carried out in public, or at least with more people attending.
I don’t know if Louis liked being stared at while eating, but his circumstances probably made him indifferent to that.
Taking heart from that thought and sweating like a stevedore in the early summer heat, I stumbled into El Jaleo, a modernistic, glass-walled restaurant, hoping that I’d find a table looking out over the street, affording me a little people watching while I drank a nice cold glass of something vinous and fiddled with a few tapas.
While I waited to be waited upon, my mind scrambled around for more ballast to keep me from walking out the door like a yellow-bellied coward.
The hostess ignored the sweat rolling down my face and asked if I would like to sit at the counter in the bar or at a table. I opted for a table, and she took me straight to a table for two, right by the window and separated a little from the entrance by a small and heavily stuccoed wall. Perfect, I thought, the noise won’t be so annoying. And it wasn’t.
I hate to admit it, but my mind played tricks on me, tossing at me every stereotype about women dining alone.
M. F. K. Fisher fell into that trap, too.
Fisher once served up an essay, “‘A’ is for Dining Alone,” found in her clever An Alphabet for Gourmets (1949). But far from enjoying her forays into single dining in Hollywood when she briefly tried her hand as a screenwriter, Fisher approached eating alone in public as an ordeal, exclaiming:
“I resolved to establish myself as well-behaved female at one or two good restaurants … and above all they knew that I could not only order but also drink, all by myself, an apéritif and a small bottle of wine or a mug of ale without turning into a maudlin pickup for The Gentleman at the Bar.” And then she continues, saying “with carefully disguised self-consciousness I would order my meal.”
She reveals the cultural mores of the time (late 1940s) in regard to single women eating in public, with the taint of the hooker or the embarrassing emotional woman, likely drunk.
Soon a waitress came by and presented me with three menus, each different, all decked out in bright orange covers. She also filled up both glasses on the table with ice water. I grabbed the one closest to me like a drowning man lurches for a lifesaver, and not one of the candy persuasion, either. After a quick glance at the tapas menu, I decided on fried calamari with garlic mayonnaise. The wine list featured Spanish wines, of course, so I picked a white, a blend of Gewürztraminer and moscato grapes, from Catalonia, because a friend of mine spent two months there, and I wanted to taste a bit of that fabled place.
As the waitress turned to another table, I thought of Fisher and her mad waitress.
In another essay, “I Was Really Very Hungry,” her story of a food-crazed waitress and an unappreciated Burgundian chef, Fisher makes no mention of any discomfiture in eating alone. She instead grouses about the waitress’s pushy nature, ”Hell! I loathed hors d’oeuvres!” Imagine her surprise when the waitress appears with eight “flat baking dishes piled up her arms like the plates of a Japanese juggler.” Fisher, truth be told, did not eat that meal alone, for she suffered the company of the seductive waitress. No, not seductive in the sexual way we Americans might think of seduction, but rather the French tendency toward seduction examined by Elaine Sciolino in her tantalizing book, La Séduction (2011). A film version of Fisher’s story might well play up the noir side of the meal, the death of the trout and the knife-wielding and faceless chef hidden behind the doors of the kitchen.
Displaying none of the hovering and gushing of Fisher’s muse, my waitress did not remove the menus after she took my order, so I busied myself studying them and scrolling through apps on my cell phone, trying not to feel too strange, too alone. staring at the empty seat across from me from time to time, excessively aware of the chattering going on around me.
When the wine and the calamari arrived, I forgot all about distractions, put my Droid away, and just enjoyed my food.
Light golden in color, the wine sparkled in the sunlight coming through the window, a few bubbles bouncing lazily on the top. A sniff, a sip, and I could have been sitting on the grass under a giant oak tree at high noon on a warm spring day, the air fragrant with rose blossoms and lavender. Mounded in a small oval dish, the calamari wore thin flecks of crisp crust, not unlike the gilt covering a Baroque altar, contrasting with the shiny white ceramic finish of the dish.
In our overly busy, media-infused world, eating alone can be a good thing.
Without someone to talk to, without a book to read, and without a constantly hovering waitress, I simply focused on what I was eating. The light crispness of the calamari batter, the sweet softness of the calamari themselves, and the almost creamy mouthfeel of the semi-sweet Viña Esmeralda all blended together in such a way that I completely forgot my solitude.
Then thoughts of Mr. Bean, that crafty British comedian, elbowed his way into my mind. I recalled an incident where Mr. Bean played with a plate of steak tartare, and I smiled as I slowly chewed that last bite of calamari, not wanting to end what turned out to be a most pleasant experience.
And what of Mr. Bean? And that steak tartare? Well, I suggest wearing a tight little corset (or at least Spanx) while watching this video, to avoid a serious case of side-splitting:
Yes, I thought, “Eating alone can be both amusing and soul-replenishing.” Smugly, I glanced around the room. No one noticed, or cared, that I sat at a table for two by myself.
That is, until the busboy walked by and burst my little bubble of pleasure by asking me, “Are you waiting for someone?” when it was obvious that I was done eating and not waiting for anyone. When I shook my head, he grabbed the extra water glass, the silverware, the napkin, and marched off.
Frankly, no matter what, I highly recommend eating alone from to time. And not just in front of the “telly.”
Louis XIV knew a good thing when he saw it, I guess.
*See French historian Marc Bloch’s book on the history of the royal touch: The Royal Touch: Sacred Monarchy and Scrofula in England and France .
© 2016 C. Bertelsen