In the past two weeks, I have gone out to eat all by myself twice. And I'm not talking about a rushed lunch on a workday, a hastily dispatched fast-food meal, or some shopping-break grub at a mall food court — my meals were leisurely dinners at full-service restaurants where I drank and dined alone, seated solo at a two-top.
Right about now you may be thinking something along the lines of, "You poor thing! Eating all alone! Were you dumped? Did your friends cancel on you? Do you — sob — not have any friends?"
But please, don't pity me: My solitary dining was entirely my own choice. In fact, I relished every single delicious second of it.
Truth be told, I am an unapologetic introvert, although not the socially awkward kind. I'm not shy, and I can "fake it" in a crowd well enough, but with a few exceptions I feel happiest and most energized when I am by myself, alone with my thoughts, and doing precisely as I please. Since a good meal pleases me more than just about anything else, dining out with only the pleasure of my own good company is an experience that I seek out as often as I can.
But you don't have to be a dyed-in-the-wool introvert to experience the joys of a culinary walk on the quiet side. Sure, it helps if you're already comfortable in your own skin, but isn't that something we should all strive for?
And as it turns out, I'm no longer (pardon the pun) alone in my proclivities. More and more people are discovering the pleasures of going solo: According to Open Table, dinner reservations for one rose by 62 percent in 2015.
When dining out alone, after all, you're able to be fully present and completely in the moment in a way you never can be when surrounded by people. (As long as you put away your gadgets, that is.) There's no conversation demanding your attention and distracting you from all the sensory experiences of the meal.
How many times have you found yourself mindlessly putting bites in your mouth, barely noticing the taste of the food, during a lively dinner discussion? Or wishing that everyone would be silent for just one moment so that you can really think about the flavors you're experiencing? Or been more worried about whether or not you have food dangling between your teeth than enjoying the delicate flavor of that sautéed baby spinach you ordered?
When I eat alone, I am blissfully unencumbered by such concerns.
At a recent dinner at a romantic French bistro — yes, I took myself, all alone, to a romantic restaurant — I was at liberty to enjoy my steak frites and glass of full-bodied red wine as slowly and meticulously as I pleased, my mind free to focus solely on the feel and flavor of the meltingly soft pink medium-rare center of my meat and the rich berry notes of my wine.
There's also fun to be had in between courses if, like me, you enjoy people-watching and a bit of harmless eavesdropping. As a solo diner, after all, you have an unobtrusive ringside seat to the many fascinating dramas playing out all around you. After I finished my steak frites, for instance, I watched as a very awkward first date unfolded before my eyes at a nearby table, feeling lucky that no such ickiness had marred my dining experience.
At an impromptu dinner-for-one in my South Philly neighborhood, I happily sipped my ice-cold sangria, entertained by a party of three who could not agree on one single dish to share for the table. After a few minutes of bickering, they got up and shuffled out without ordering anything. How nice, I thought, not to have to come to a consensus in order to simply enjoy a meal!
For all its glories, there are admittedly some downsides to dining alone. Going to the bathroom presents logistical difficulties that I haven't quite solved. Do you leave your belongings at the table and worry that something might be taken, or do you take everything with you and risk your server thinking you've skipped out?
It's also likely that you'll taste fewer dishes alone, and miss out on ordering a large variety of things to try, as you'd be more likely to do with a larger party. And of course you need to keep an eye on how many cocktails or glasses of wine you have, as you'll have to get yourself home safely.
But in my mind, these are minor inconveniences when compared to the pleasures of enjoying a meal entirely on my own terms. I must admit, I share M.F.K. Fisher's (mildly) misanthropic feeling, an "increasing conviction that sharing food with another human being is an intimate act that should not be indulged in lightly."