04 March 2011

What is the big deal with dining alone?

In my line of work, I most often travel alone.  I arrive in a strange city, fumble with an unfamiliar rental car, and do at least some of my eating and sight-seeing alone.  The more gigs I have scheduled for a specific cite, the more alone time I have, because each hosting program assumes someone else is handling me.

Surprisingly, the more urban areas that can handle multiple flute recitals in a week (can anyone?), the more discomfort people appear to display upon seeing me alone in a restaurant.  This is based entirely on perception, of course, which is inherently flawed in various ways, but it still seems palpable to me.  Perhaps rural areas are equally bothered by my loneliness but just act differently.  I will say, I have been engaged in conversation across the aisle in restaurants in Wyoming, South Dakota, and the like too often to count.  Maybe this was how local diners corrected the problem of seeing a companionless fellow diner--they all became my companions.  If this is the case, it was as graceful and pleasant as any negative emotion I have ever seen expressed.

On a recent trip to Seattle, however,  I had a different experience when I found myself waiting in line alone for lunch at a popular French restaurant.   I was OK with the fact that I was by myself, but I was not in love with the fact that I seemed invisible to the staff and all too visible to the other diners.  I would have preferred the opposite.

When the host came to seat me, he looked right over my head to the three businessmen standing directly behind me and said, “Now then, gentlemen…”  Fearing I would have to wait even longer while they skipped the line (no one made any moves to correct him and point out my short presence directly in front of him), I jumped in and said, “Just me, please!”, a slightly awkward moment when met by blank stares from all around.  Or maybe I looked like the kind of sassy little lady to have three dates.

I was then seated at the only two-top in sight, placed right in the walkway at the front of the dining room like an afterthought.    It should’ve been good for getting my water refilled (it wasn’t), but I was plunked down directly interrupting the flow of traffic in and out of the room, which created another perpetually awkward moment.

The restaurant was filled with business groups and “Real Housewives” types in large, boisterous parties, and I caught a few uncomfortable sets of eyes regularly meeting mine.  Alright, I guess I kept looking at them, too.  I will not blame all of Seattle for this situation, but in this particular restaurant, it really seemed like too much of a big deal that I did not have a collection of friends on display at lunch.

My biggest complaint, though, is the way the restaurant dealt with a singular diner.  My waitress was not at all bothered by my presence, although I was pleasant and started off by ordering booze, signifying that I was at least not a total cheapskate.  After watching her take orders from all those seated after me in her area, my order was hastily taken and, when my food came, it was slammed down in front of me while she looked out the window.  Charming.  And on the rare occasion when I actually wanted to order dessert, she silently slid the bill over to me while I was still working on my entrée;  behavior which, by the way, did not seem to be repeated at the full tables around me--cheesy sucking-up lines seemed to be shouted from every corner in those situations.

Friends, sometimes people eat alone.  It is not sad or icky--it’s just the way it happens sometimes.  We also plan to pay with actual money, however, and perhaps our lack of neediness will help make up for the fact that we do not order eight complete sets of meals. Maybe this guide will help.

The ahi tuna was delicious, by the way.  And it was a much cheaper meal than I had budgeted: there was no coffee and crème brulee, afterall, and the tip was rather small in size.