“When did being alone become the modern-day equivalent of being a leper? Will Manhattan restaurants soon be divided up into sections – smoking / non-smoking, single / non-single?” ~ Carrie Bradshaw, Sex and the City
So, you find yourself alone and hungry. It happens to all of us. Whether travelling or simply on a weekend without company of friends, dining alone is something each one of us had to do at least once in our lives. It isn’t an easy thing. Dining is a social activity. We like company to share in our food experience and aren’t comfortable with other people eating alone. And so, the solo diner awkwardly hides behind a book, orders food to go or settles for a quick fast food bite.
Why is dining alone so hard for most of us? Is it because we feel vulnerable and exposed? Is it because we think others are judging us or are feeling sorry for us? And why does a stranger’s opinion matter? I am here to tell you with absolute certainty: dining solo can be a a truly incredible experience – if you just give it a chance. Next time you are alone, step out with confidence. You may just get an experience of a lifetime. Allow me to elaborate.
I am no different from a regular Joe. I never used to go out to eat by myself, with the exception of, well, fast food. Things changed for me dramatically the year I turned 30. Now, at that point I was already an experienced diner, somewhat knowledgeable about food and beverage. But eating alone was never a comfortable thing. However, 2006 will go down in history (yes, I am dating myself here!) as the year I flew across the country to eat at The French Laundry. Solo.
It was scary! But hey, when you are single, no one is expected to give you a gift of this fabulous dinner. I was on my own. Those who know me well can probably picture it: I stand outside this beautiful place for a moment, after having had a few cocktails for courage. I take a deep breath. Then shaking off any awkwardness I feel, I enter the hallow halls of Thomas Keller. It isn’t necessary for me to describe the meal. Those of you in the know will need no introduction. Let’s just leave it at “the most spectacular meal of my life to date”. And I have eaten some! What I should tell you, though, is this - my experience at The French Laundry was only ENHANCED by my being alone. I got treated with extra care. Most of the staff had stopped by my table to say hello and chat with me for a moment. Chef Keller came to my table to greet me. Extra courses miraculously appeared in my tasting menu. Wine pairings magically made their way over. I was able to commune with the food, to give it careful thought, to appreciate its intricacy. It was nothing short of SPECTACULAR! And I was hooked.
The feeling of no distraction. The freedom to order WHATEVER. Think about it… when was the last time you were in a group and had the opportunity to say to the chef: “Feed us! No holds barred!” Someone is bound to be allergic to something. Someone doesn’t eat meat. Someone is squeamish about shellfish. Someone wants a separate check because they have to leave mid-meal. Someone else doesn’t want to share. And so on and so forth. When dining alone, none of these happen! It can be truly liberating. Omakase, Chef! I leave the choice up to you. And yes, please, I would love to try the fermented squid liver!
In 2007, my favorite Chicago fine dining restaurant announced it was closing. I was saddened by the news. So many memories, so many special occasions. I am so incredibly sentimental, I felt I needed to say my good bye to the place. So, I called. I made a reservation for one. I went and sat at a table alone, communing with the food, being waited on by the sommelier pouring delicious burgundy, taking in every element of this place I loved. I could have gone with a group. I CHOSE to go alone. I cherish the memory I made that day.
Next time you find yourself dining alone, take courage, put down that book, get yourself a proper table and take in the experience. Focus on the food, ask questions, use all of your senses. Don’t bother noticing anyone else around you - unless they engage you in a proper food related conversation. Make it a point to explore the menu, trying things you haven’t before. Flying solo, your mind will not be influenced by anyone else. Enjoy every thoughtful bite. With a little practice, you will become a great solo diner. Just like me.
Now… repeat after me: “Omakase, Chef. I leave the choice up to you.”
Hungry? Want more? Follow me on twitter at Gourmet Rambler.