“One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.”
Virginia Woolf

There are several life skills my mother taught me before I set off into the world: how to properly separate my laundry; how to balance my checkbook; how to prepare red meat in an assortment of quick-and-easy ways. Other skills I picked up as a sink-or-swim necessity: how to negotiate rent; how to negotiate salary increases; how to negotiate failed relationships, hopeless heartache, the metaphysical realization that we die; and how to negotiate reasonable rates with the psychotherapist. There are certain skills, however, that are often left out of public discourse, usually owing to our general squeamishness about anxiety-arousing issues such as mental illness, poverty, sexual dysfunction, and -- what I would like to expound upon in this essay -- being single. Or more specifically, being a single diner.

To walk into a restaurant by yourself on a Friday night, request a table for one, savor a full-course meal complete with wine, and linger over your espresso while surrounded by tables of raucous friends or (even worse) affectionate lovers spooning gelato into each other’s mouths -- to dine alone in supreme grace and dignity is a life skill akin to high art. Your mother never taught you this. Probably because she never spelled it out for you that at certain points of your life, you will be alone. If you are not now or have not already been alone, you will be one day. And if you already are, welcome. The purpose of this essay is to reclaim the state of dining alone and to overthrow cultural assumptions that cow us into spending another desolate evening eating microwaved burritos while watching The Jeffersons on TV.

I admit, there are few things I enjoy more than sharing a meal with friends, either at home or at a restaurant; the conversation and laughter flow, we reminisce about old times, the palates are soothed and happy. Dining with a lover is usually a notch higher on the Richter scale of pleasant evenings, adding the element of being pampered and serviced by the wait staff, leaving us to concentrate on l’affaire d’amour in between bites of mu shu pork. But there are times in my life when I find myself far away from friends and even further away from having a lover. At these moments, I stubbornly refuse to give up the one epicurean pleasure I can truly satisfy by myself: eating. Why not go to a restaurant by myself? I don’t remember the first time I did, but I have many times since, and my experiences lead me to believe that the lone diner strikes an assortment of anxious emotions within people’s hearts. Whether it is fear (“Will I be her one day?”) or pity (“That poor girl!”) or relief (“Thank God I’m engaged to Bobby!”), most people would rather the single young woman dine alone in the privacy of her home, and not in public. However, I refuse to compromise my life to soothe the anxieties of others. In order to subvert the subtle discrimination against solo diners, we must first learn to identify it.

To begin, there are certain recurring reactions that happen whenever I dine alone, designed, I’m sure, to discourage the act. Most of these reactions fall under what I term single-phobia, or the irrational fear of independent people engaging in social activities by themselves. A dining experience in which I am harassed by single-phobia usually unfolds in the following manner:

Host: Table for . . . ?
Me: One, please.
Host: (Arching a skeptical eyebrow) Okaaay . . . this way, please.
(The host then leads me past bright empty booths at the front of the restaurant to a shaky miniscule table in a dark corner next to the kitchen.)
Me: Couldn’t I have one of those front tables? I’d rather not sit in the dark.
Host: I’m sorry, but those tables are reserved for parties of two or more. (What he really means to say is that the front tables are reserved for people with friends and social lives, and that people dine at restaurants to have a good time in the company of others. To maintain the festive atmosphere, they relegate me to the dark corner.)
Me: Fine.
(I am seated. The waiter takes my order nearly twenty minutes later. He only returns twice more, to bring food and to bring my check. He easily ignores my frantic hand gestures for more water, my polite yet assertive yelps of “Excuse me!” and focuses on any other place in the room when hustling past my table in and out of the kitchen. I know what he’s thinking, having been in the restaurant business myself: single diner equals small tip.)

Why does single-phobia permeate our culture? Perhaps we can blame the usual suspects: magazines, MTV, Top 40 boy-bands crooning their everlasting love to pubescent girls, urban bar culture (straight and gay), romantic comedies with trite endings, advertisements with ludicrous claims. But whatever the reasons, the object of the game is to not be alone. People spend lots of cash to be in a couple. Couples spend lots of cash being in couples. Call it a capitalist theory of modern love or just call me bitter, but whatever the explanation, this cultural phenomenon of anti-aloneness prevails wherever I attempt to enjoy a meal in a restaurant by myself.

For example, once when I was in New York City, I spent one homeless week in the Lucky Wagon, a pit passing for a hotel on the Chinatown–Little Italy border. At that point, I had only a hulking backpack of possessions, a pseudoglamorous magazine job paying subsistence wages, and a crazed determinism to keep me from ending up in the East River. My five-by-ten whitewashed room had no TV set to quell the voices in my head demanding of me, “How did you end up at this all-time low?” I tried to soothe my worries with dinner on Mulberry Street, the vivacious tourist trap of Italian eateries, where I chose a noisy, crowded little trattoria because it served my favorite dish, penne all’arrabiata -- “angry pasta” for an angry girl.

The waiter sat me at a corner table, of course, me being the only single diner in a room full of birthday parties and groups of Japanese tourists. He was a handsome, young Italian American, his name may have been Anthony, and he laughed and joked with me for a bit. Then, broadcasting over the entire room in a booming voice, he asked me, “What are you doing eating alone?” Flushed from embarrassment and the wine, I shrugged my shoulders. “It’s Saturday night and you’re alone? What’s the matter, your boyfriend doesn’t take you out???” I started to explain that I didn’t have a boyfriend to take me out, that I didn’t even have any friends in New York, that I really was alone, but I realized he wouldn’t believe me. That’s when I began to understand how deeply entrenched in American culture the fear of the single diner is. It didn’t even cross Anthony’s mind that I was an independent, free being, eating dinner by myself.

Don’t be mistaken, I’m not some kind of gourmand misanthrope advocating antisocial behavior. I recognize the basic human need to feel love and affection. But I also believe that a young woman would do well for herself to recognize her relationship to the world and the conditions in the world that cause her to experience what our modernist friends the Existentialists called angst, or the feeling of despair and anguish. Night after night of frozen burritos and TV sitcom reruns is this city-dwelling gal’s version of despair and anguish. But then an epiphany: the realization that in any life of substance during which risks and leaps of faith are taken, there are inevitably moments when there is only me, and that is a good thing, and I will celebrate by taking myself out as my favorite guest to a lovely dinner.

With all self-affirmations out of the way, I’d like to proceed with tips and techniques for interested parties on how to dine alone gracefully and enjoyably.

First of all, the meal you are eating determines whether or not you may bring reading material to entertain yourself. I’m of the opinion that any brunch or lunch is a good time to bring the paper, a good book, a magazine, et cetera. If you forget to bring something, under no circumstances should you begin to shuffle through your Day Runner organizer, pretending to write notes in the mini-calendar section; it is a telltale sign that you are extremely uncomfortable dining alone and are desperate to look busy. Instead, calmly finish your meal and occupy yourself by staring blankly at people and eavesdropping blatantly on conversations. It’s entertaining, and you’ll seem intriguing, I guarantee.

If you are eating at a more stylish restaurant, you might consider more sophisticated modes of self-entertainment, like drinking copiously. In restaurants with outdoor seating, I like to smoke. Be careful, though, not to drink or smoke too much before your meal is served, as you may make yourself ill, and that can get messy.

One game I like to play every now and then when I’m dining at a finer eating establishment is “Food Critic”: Dress to the nines for your meal. At several key points during the meal (after swirling the first taste of wine around in your glass and after the first bite of each dish), pull out a notebook and pen and jot down notes. Make several calls on your cell phone to your answering machine at home, pretending you are making after-dinner plans, and drop the names of chic bars and media personalities whenever possible. If I do a good job, I can usually weasel a free dessert and free alcohol. It’s fun!

Before I conclude, I’d like to point out one very important thing to remember at all times: you are not really alone. Sure, the setting is for one and there is only a fake floral arrangement in a vase to greet you across the table. But who says you can’t converse with the floral arrangement? People talk to their plants and pets all the time -- why is it so strange to speak with inanimate objects? A short conversation I had with my dinner last night went something like this:

Me: Hello, Mr. Pizza! I must eat you now!

A rather flat conversation, I admit, but thoroughly spontaneous and enjoyable nonetheless. Or if you like, solo dinners are good opportunities to resurrect imaginary childhood friends and catch up on old times with them. During my solo meals, I like to replay past arguments I’ve lost to friends or ex-lovers, perfecting the flawless retort I wish I had thought of at the time. However, I have to be careful not to argue out loud, as I tend to get carried away and alarm people at nearby tables. My point is, when dining alone, never underestimate the pleasure of your own company, and enjoy it with pride. And when all else fails, there are always the voices in your head . . .

From the book Imagining Ourselves. Copyright © 2006 by The International Museum of Women. (March 2006; $26.95US; 1-57731-524-3) Reprinted with permission of New World Library, Novato, CA. www.newworldlibrary.com.

Author's Bio: 


After working as a photo editor, a PR lackey for Big Oil, and a pixel pusher during that historical capitalist romp known as the dot-com boom, Jolivette Mecenas has accepted -- happily -- a life of teaching and writing. She is teaching at the University of Hawaii while pursuing her PhD in English, after which she plans to return to her native land, California.

For more information, please visit www.imow.org