The Art of Eating Alone

Eating is a deeply intimate, social activity. Families are encouraged to eat together so they can talk about their day. The dining hall is central to a college campus for its role for cementing lifelong relationships. Fancy restaurants are the place to bring dates and celebrate romantic occasions. So it’s deeply weird to eat by oneself.

Not that it’s all that unusual for me. At work, I often choose to eat by myself because my brain needs a rest and social activity can require a little more effort than I’m capable of. (And I’m terrible about setting up lunch appointments.) At home, Chris is at work five nights out of seven, so I’m often cooking for myself.

But eating alone at a fancy restaurant is different. Unlike a utilitarian fast casual place, a nice restaurant comes with societal expectations – that you’ve purposely planned it, that you’re spending enough money to make it a special experience, and that you’ll be accompanied. So breaking those societal expectations is surprising and at first, even uncomfortable. But like many initially awkward experiences, it had its subtle benefits.

The opportunity to eat by myself at a fancy restaurant came last week, when I was visiting Berkeley, California for work. The conference I was attending was held at the historical Claremont Hotel and Spa, which is about as swanky as the name suggests. Its signature restaurant is the Meritage, of which they had various newspaper / magazine articles around the hotel. As I’m a sucker for restaurant reviews, I read a couple as I passed by, leading me to find out that the head chef had previously worked at the French Laundry.

Despite its name, the French Laundry is considered by many to be the best restaurant in the U.S. The Michelin Guide, which rates restaurants in only a few cities outside of France, chooses to rate the Napa Valley just for the ability to rate the French Laundry. (The only other U.S. city it rates is New York.) A large portion of Michael Ruhlman’s The Soul of a Chef is devoted to Thomas Keller, the French Laundry’s head chef, and it’s an absolutely fascinating read. So finding out that small fact drastically changed my attitude to the restaurant. As I was deciding where to eat dinner, it was pouring rain. Originally, I was just planning on getting something reasonable at the hotel’s cheaper restaurant. But if there was a disciple of Thomas Keller’s heading a restaurant at the very hotel I was staying in, it would be a shame to turn down the opportunity, would it not? Especially in northern California, the home of the local food movement and one of the few places in America where fresh local vegetables in March are likely to be good. I’m usually a very cheap person, but very good food is the one thing I’m willing to spend money on.

At first, the fear of eating alone had a strong grasp on me. Eating alone at a fancy restaurant was actually one of the life-list goals ofSarah Von from Yes and Yes, one of my favorite bloggers. At the time, I thought “Why would you ever do that? That sounds horrible.” But now I was faced with the fact of doing exactly that or missing out on what could be an amazing rare experience.

After some faffing about, I finally worked up the courage to walk up to the host stand and say, “Just one, please.” Despite her surprise – or at least my perception of surprise, which may have been imagined – she was very nice. The host seated me in a back corner of the restaurant, at an appropriately small table. It was cozy, conveniently allowing me to look out at the rest of the restaurant without being looked at myself. I faced a huge bank of windows that revealed a soaring view of Berkeley and San Francisco. The lights in the city below glowed and flickered in the dark, like so many tiny candles. I just let myself relax and be drawn into the scene.

My meal started with an amuse-bouche (a complimentary pre-meal chef’s choice “taste”) of leek and potato soup in the most adorable little cup I’ve ever seen. It could have been used by an American Girl doll.

As the restaurant offered both small and full plates of its options, I ordered the small plates so I could try as many items as possible. My first course was also a soup, of pear and parsnip. The person who chooses the restaurant’s dishes must particularly like quirky soup bowls, as this one was also charmingly weird.

Normally, I hate when people take photographs at restaurants. But this was too cute.

The soup was good, albeit a bit bland. But the concept was good enough – and seemingly simple enough – that I’d like to play around with it at home.

My second course was a potato and goat cheese terrine, covered in little beets. Normally, I hate beets. Even at restaurants that are otherwise very good, I don’t like them. I think it’s something about the smell. But these were so sweet that I literally didn’t realize they were beets. I only figured it out because I remembered the menu description.

This course was where I really started appreciating the beauties of eating alone. With no distractions, I focused all of my attention on enjoying the food. I ate much more slowly than usual, taking time to thoroughly taste every forkful. I appreciated the complexities of the dish far more than I would have otherwise. It was a very pure eating experience.

Beyond the unadulterated bliss, the other aspect that revealed itself was food’s connection with memory. With no one to engage in conversation, my mind was free to wander. Where it often went was into the past. The lovely beets reminded me of the one other time I liked beets – when Chris also made them with goat cheese, via a beet relish. I smiled, taking pride in the fact that my husband has been able to make a preparation of a disliked ingredient that some very good chefs have not. (Unfortunately, I’m not positive that Chris can replicate Meritage’s sweet beets. The waiter was terribly uninformed, and when I asked Chris what he thought might have made it so good, the best response he gave was, “Maybe California beets are better.”)

My third course was two scallops placed upon a bed of teeny half-domes of zucchini and carrots. Although you can get scallops at lot of places, they are rarely done well. These were perfectly seared, buttery and flaky. I do wish Chris had been there to taste them, because it’s nice to share the appreciation of such things.

I finished with a cup of black tea, which itself inspired a few memories. I recalled interviewing a factory manager in Ireland for my masters thesis, pouring myself a cup of tea in the absolute antithesis of this situation, a factory break-room. The tea was probably about the same in quality, albeit served in a Styrofoam cup. The packages of Sugar in the Raw on the table reminded me of my dad, who used to work for a company that sold the product to restaurants. Whenever we were at a restaurant that had it, he would hold it up and proudly proclaim that his company sold it, which of course, I hadn’t forgotten since the last time he had told me. This gently goofy enthusiasm is a hallmark of my dad’s charm.

Now having eaten at a fancy restaurant alone, I highly recommend trying it at least once if the opportunity presents itself. Even if you can’t go out to an expensive restaurant, I’d imagine going somewhere unique would serve the same purpose. Much like exploring a city by myself, it was very different from anything I had ever done, but in a good way.

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6 Responses to The Art of Eating Alone

  1. bitwise says:

    “Even if you can’t go out to an expensive restaurant, I’d imagine going somewhere unique would serve the same purpose.”

    When I was out shopping alone (and unexpectedly) once, I decided on a whim to try a cheap Korean restaurant that I knew none of my friends were keen on trying. The food was just okay, but the soft drinks were free with an entree, and every table got its own pitcher of cool barley tea (which was welcome on a hot day). I find I actually eat faster when I’m alone. It was an enjoyable experience because there was no pressure to talk, and there’s a sense of freedom and easy experimentation that comes with dining alone. No one’s going to tell you you ordered the wrong thing, or try to coerce you into splitting something you don’t really want, and you can eat quickly or dawdle as you choose. It’s not an experience I would want every day, but eating alone is a nice change of pace now and then, and a great opportunity to try restaurants no one else wants to go to.

    • I usually eat faster when alone (mostly because the food I eat alone is good, but not great), but in this case, I purposely slowed down to savor the experience. I too liked the easy experimentation, but not the loss of ability to mooch off of my husband’s plate!

  2. Julezyme says:

    I always have a book (or these days, my iPhone) on me, not least for occasions of dining alone. This sounds like a wonderful experience!

    • I actually had our Nook with me, but decided I would only pull it out if I was so bored out of my skull that I couldn’t stand it. I find if I read and eat at the same time, I’m so involved in the book (or website) that I don’t really notice what I’m eating. I wanted to be very focused for this.

  3. E says:

    Sounds amazing – glad you went for it! There are a couple of “fancy” places I’d love to try at least once (Eleven Madison Park especially) so if the opportunity presents, even if it means enjoying a meal on my own, I hope I would make the same choice.

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