Monday, July 25, 2011

Table for One

I recently ate lunch at a fine French bistro in midtown Manhattan, at a table for one. Having just left my doctor’s office with a clean bill of health, I figured there was no better way to celebrate than with a cheese-rich meal accompanied by a glass of burgundy. 

Illustration by Raj Martino,
This was an impromptu celebration—planned only when I realized that my doctor’s office is just around the corner from Artisanal, a popular bistro that I’ve always wanted to visit. I was hungry, the menu was enticing and I didn’t need a reservation because it was the noon hour when tables aren’t in great demand.

Only one issue, if you want to call it that, remained: No one would be joining me for lunch. I would be alone, eating by myself in one of New York’s nicer restaurants. In his book Heat, which details his life as a kitchen slave at Babbo restaurant in New York, Bill Buford writes that people who dine alone at the bar are referred to by staff as “bar losers.” Would sitting at a table for one make me a loser, too?

I’m married, but I’ve been known to enjoy a solo martini in a crowded bar, and I will certainly go to movies on a date with myself and hold my own hand. That’s not all that unusual in New York, a city where 32% of all households are made up of single individuals

Still, it’s one thing to walk into a neighborhood diner for a sandwich and another thing entirely to be escorted by a maĆ®tre d’ to a well-appointed table for two in a nice restaurant and watch as a member of the wait staff discreetly whisks away any trace of china and cutlery from the place opposite you. I used to find this moment extremely embarrassing, but now that I’ve eaten alone just for the fun of it at a few of New York’s best restaurants, I’ve learned, as we say in yoga class, to breathe into the position and enjoy the whisking theatrics as part of the experience.

Lunchtime theater

At Artisanal, I play my part in the performance of being served. Alone, I’m better able to observe the rituals and engage in a dialogue with my server, a bespectacled young woman with the look of a recent college grad. In her smart black tie and vest, tailored shirt and long white apron, she opines judiciously on which glass of burgundy would best pair with my English cheddar grilled-cheese sandwich half, dreamily gooey French onion soup and mesclun salad.

“The full body of a Nuits Saint Georges would match the strong flavors of the cheddar,” she says as we study the wine list together.

“That sounds nice, but you don’t think it might be a bit heavy?” I murmur tentatively.

“Why don’t I give you a sample,” my server suggests, briefly disappearing into the bistro’s din and returning with a bottle.

She splashes a sample into my glass, I taste it, and it is good. Now, glass in hand, my order in, I can just let it all wash over me.

Transient thrills

I hope I never get over the thrill of enjoying a beautifully served meal in a thoughtfully managed dining establishment designed for my pleasure. Designed for our pleasure, all these happy people sat buzzing around me, sharing this happily transient moment before moving back into the realities of the day.

“We went to Atlantic City for the bachelorette party and we lost her,” says the woman at the table next to me to her lunch companion. “We thought she was gambling, but it turned out she had run off with two guys.”

“That sounds pretty crazy,” he answers desultorily as he reads the menu.

“I mean, it’s the last free night of her life and blah, blah, blah. Obviously, we’d all had a few drinks, but running off and leaving her own party? Really?”

Across the table, the woman’s companion still has not lifted his eyes from the menu, and I can’t tell if he finds the lunch specials completely riveting or if he’s trying to discourage her from talking.

Bacon and the Buddha

It can be such a treat to hear a scrap of somebody else’s chatter without feeling obliged to show interest in what’s being said. Talk takes away a quiet appreciation of the five senses, and there is plenty to appreciate at Artisanal: the taste of onions infusing hot broth, the visual appeal of stretching and twirling melted cheese with a spoon, the savory scent of smoked bacon, the crunch of a well-turned crust of grilled bread, the smooth lusciousness of cheesecake for dessert.

Don’t get me wrong. I do know how to eat in a group. Just a couple of weeks ago I invited our next-door neighbors to dine with us on the spur of the moment because a big, fresh free-range chicken had arrived in our CSA box and I wanted to share it.

Still, I spent years living in New York and not going to its better restaurants because I couldn’t afford them or because my friends and family didn’t share my enthusiasm. Now I’m a grown woman, so I go, and if no one wants to join me, I go alone. Why? Because I’m not perpetually broke anymore and, quite simply, because I can.

“As you walk and eat and travel, be where you are. Otherwise you will miss most of your life,” says the Buddha.

I have learned on my travels through New York that the city’s temples of fine dining are open to all who can afford the price of entry, and they will welcome me with open arms whether I’m in a group or at a table for one. And eating alone is a wonderful way to be where I am.

Check out my latest restaurant review for New York Press: Passing the Bar: Trix