A maudlin song from long ago claims, "One is the loneliest number." Well, really, it depends. Dining alone, for example, has its pleasures as well as challenges.
Some diners choose solitude; others have it thrust upon them via the Business Trip. Finding a good restaurant in an unfamiliar city is one of the joys of business travel. I've known people (OK, I was one of them) who made business appointments only after nailing hard-to-get dinner reservations. I should explain: This was in the heyday of Chez Panisse and some of the other places opened by chefs who learned their stuff with Alice Waters. Any dedicated foodie would understand.
Some past solo travel revealed unexpected delights. I found a great little seafood restaurant in the wasteland of Schenectady, N.Y., and ate there every night I could (though it was hard to pass on the pizza joints that dot Schenectady's hills).
Hidden in the small town of West Chester, Pa., was a superb wine bar called Meritage. I got to talking with one of the owners about the food, the wine list, the challenge of opening a restaurant. It was a thoroughly enjoyable evening, made pleasant by the number of good wines available by the glass (always a plus for the single diner). When I returned a year later, the owner greeted me like an old friend. "You don't really remember me, do you?" I asked. "Of course I do, " he said. "You sat right over there," he said, gesturing. "And you had the monkfish." I was stunned, and delighted.
Contrast that with the treatment I received at a restaurant in Annapolis, Md. As often happens when one dines alone, the maitre d' looks around for your companion. "My invisible friend and I," I am often tempted to say, "would like a table for one." In this instance I was seated at a distant table like an afterthought. The waiter could barely contain his sneer at me, his scowl at the host. How dare he be given a one-top? And a woman to boot? The tab will be small, the tip miniscule; everyone knows how poorly women tip. For the first time in my long eating-out life, I had a word with the maitre d' on my way out.
This is an all-too-typical experience of women dining alone, a lingering vestige of sexist assumptions. A man dining alone is mysterious; a woman alone, somehow pitiful. As a friend of mine who travels and dines alone has said, "I feel as though I'm somehow upsetting the social order by presuming to come to their fine establishment sans companion."
Another friend, a gregarious woman to whom no one is a stranger, reports an interesting trend in restaurants serving out-of-towners: a Travelers Table where solo diners can sit for companionable conversation with others -- a delight for my friend, a horror for me. Give me a table with enough light to read by.
Give me a cozy atmosphere, something posh but not overtly romantic. Mona Lisa Fondue Restaurant, for example, will only work for two. Give me attention without condescension. For one brief meal at the London Grill in Portland, Ore.'s Benson Hotel, I pretended I was royalty. In a deep leather armchair, glass of something red and luscious in hand, I watched my waiter prepare my Caesar salad tableside. It was a production worthy of applause. Best of all, we both knew how silly and fun it was for him to do, and for me to watch.
One doesn't have to be out of town to enjoy a meal alone. For people with busy lives bulging with demands, it can be a brief respite. We have some wonderful places in town for such an escape. Smaller restaurants have by design a comfortable feel. Eating at Adam's Mountain Caf is like eating at Grandma's. A glass of wine and a wonderfully prepared country French dish at La Creperie will leave you smiling. The closeness of the tables there, as well as at another favorite, 3 Doors Down, will make you feel like you're people-watching in a bistro on the Left Bank. Sencha and Walter's Bistro, worlds apart in setting and menu, are both welcoming places for the single diner.
I still miss Primitivo where one could eat at the expansive bar. It's too soon to tell about Sonterra Grill (in the spot vacated by Primitivo) but based on one visit, I have great hopes that it will be another good spot for soloing.
Finally, some last words of advice: Whenever possible, make a reservation. It adds legitimacy. Take something to read or do (not knitting). Expect to be treated well and act accordingly. No cringing, no apologies. Tip well. Have fun. Let me know how it goes.