separate two eggs: guide to dining out alone

Nighthawks, Edward Hopper, 1942.
Nighthawks, Edward Hopper, 1942.

Separate Two Eggs is my new, very occasional, series about a lonely single woman eating sad meals alone.  Or not. It’s really just a way to continue to queer food writing to add diversity to the Mommy-blogging and monogamous couple-oriented fare (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

One of my pleasures in life is eating alone at bars in nice restaurants.  In many ways, I prefer it to eating at a table with five of my closest academic colleagues.  (Yes, academics, it’s ok to laugh.)  I’d relish the opportunity when I wasn’t separated, and now even more so as I’m disentangling the strands of two lives.  It makes me feel at home and part of the business end of a restaurant, while giving my business to them.  And through this activity, I’ve really grown to love the people who put food and drink on our public tables.

When I sit at the bar, I can lazily watch the process, keep an eye on the kitchen, see the exasperated glances pass between servers, exchange pleasantries with the most important people in every restaurant, the ones who are literally running the show.  Directly served by a bartender or two, I can ask about new specials and get recommendations and hear tidbits of news from the wine distributors who stop by.  Time is less of an issue: I can eat at the bar at 4:30 because I haven’t had lunch, or 9:00 because that’s a much more reasonable dinner time.  There’s always a bit of drama, a bit of sadness.  Life pivots and spins on the fulcrum of the bar.

And there are plenty of people like me.  Not just friends of the bartender or middle managers awaiting tables with their weary wives, but traveling businessmen, an occasional doctor, a former waitress who’s back for the weekend, a tattooed dude just in for a beer, an older lady who just wanted a glass of gris and a salad, a couple who just moved to town, an aging hipster chick reading a book. There’s usually a musician or an artist, and occasionally someone looking for a new friend. Sometimes you talk to these people, sometimes you don’t. IMG_3888IMG_4567IMG_3074

It’s a nice place.  You’re inspired by the food and you let them take care of you, trust they’ll do you right.  You don’t do anything stupid, like ask for vegan mayonnaise or no peppers or gluten-free fish and chips or a glass of ice for your lovely Provençal rosé that the proprietor just told you was his favorite of the season.  You don’t announce what you don’t like or let your kid smear food all over the floor or undertip.  In short, it’s a civilized island in a sea of everything else.

Which is exactly what dining alone is all about.  The person who really made me think about my right and privilege to eat at a bar alone was Jeff Morgenthaler, while still at the late lamented Bel Ami.  He told me once that his job was to make everyone feel comfortable at his bar, even the single woman reading a book.  And he’s absolutely right in doing so.  Single women shouldn’t have to feel like barflies or weirdos eating at the bar alone.  And they shouldn’t be harassed or feel unsafe, but take pleasure in what is sadly still a radical feminist joy in not wanting the oppression of company, relations.

Sometimes I grade papers; sometimes I edit a paper; sometimes I focus too much on my iPhone; sometimes I talk with actual people.  But there’s no real pressure in a hospitable bar.  If you are single and not an asshole, you should try it some time.  And if you see me, say hello.

5 thoughts on “separate two eggs: guide to dining out alone

  1. Marianne 18 August 2013 / 1:20 pm

    I discovered eating alone when i was 24, traveling alone for 3 months, and living with the philosophy that being alone was sometimes a whammy, but I shouldn’t make it a double whammy by passing things by because I was alone at that moment in time! There were wonderful and some not so wonderful times–my only journals are the memories stored in my head .

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  2. Keren 18 August 2013 / 1:53 pm

    All right, Eugenia, you have sent me down a rabbit hole. Your post caused me to reflect upon an interlude in my life when I lived as a single woman; a time when I dated myself. I would bathe in bubbles and dress in my best, anticipating a fine evening of dining alone, perhaps followed by a good book or show. (My favorite spot at the time was Eugene’s own Book and Tea.) Inspired by M.F.K. Fisher (“The Art of Eating”) I made friendly conversation with the waiters, then sat consciously self-conscious at table: feet planted squarely on the floor, with nothing to detract from the sensory enjoyment of the food and drink at hand. No distracting conversation. No ego-inflated, unwelcome criticisms of the food or service, aimed to impress me. Just my companionable, appreciative palate and I.

    In response to your post, I decided to offer your readers a quote from Ms. Fisher–one that inspired and encouraged my relishing life at its low point. Let’s see. . .it must have been “On Dining Alone;” No, not that one. Perhaps, “A is for Dining Alone.” Hm, not that, either. I spent over an hour thumbing through the book that helped me enjoy one of the most difficult periods of my life, checking over marginal annotations on dog-eared pages. I did not find the piece about the joys of undistracted sensory delights, dining alone with feet grounded on the floor. (Did I slip off my shoes and savor my onion soup barefoot one rainy fall day? I think so.) Perhaps you or one of your readers knows the piece of which I speak. Perhaps it was tucked into “Women Who Run with the Wolves,” a book of empowerment from that period? I’ll have to dig that one out, too, just to see.

    Meanwhile, I wasted a precious couple of hours on this sunny, Sunday afternoon, sipping iced tea and warming my toes in the summer sun. I should have been heeding the clock and focusing on the work that needs be accomplished today, cloistered away in my study, hunched over my computer.

    Thank you.

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  3. nickytheprof 19 August 2013 / 10:30 am

    Eugenia, although I am married I often travel alone and have found, like you, that sitting at the bar is the absolute best way to eat alone. I have had so many good conversations with others in similar circumstances — the Scottish psychoanalyist at NOPI in London, the Icelandic biochemist at Legal Sea Food at the Prudential Center in Boston who, it turned out, knew all three of the Icelanders I knew (well, it is a small country). And I had a great conversation with the manager (half French, half American) at Fish La Boissonerie in Paris. I should add that I am a naturally shy person but I force myself to be open and therefore I never bring a book.

    thanks for a lovely post! and I’ll take you out for dinner next time I am down in Eugene!

    Anita

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  4. Larissa 22 August 2013 / 11:31 am

    I once was the single woman reading a book at Jeffrey Morganthaler’s bar–on Halloween night, no less–and also lament the long lost Bel Ami and its stellar version of the Dark and Stormy. I love sitting at the bar by myself, or with a friend, because (unless it’s a busy night) I get to pick the tender’s brain, which is especially fun at a place that makes its own bitters or has a new version of an old classic. I love learning about booze, and it’s great fun to ask an expert while I enjoy a concoction.

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  5. Eugenia 24 August 2013 / 10:21 am

    I love these comments so much. Thank you. @Keren, this piece was unintentionally inspired by MFK Fisher, our American Queen of Food Writers, and someone I’ve taught for the past three years. I had the pleasure of reading an excellent paper last term written by a student on this very topic, so I’m thankful you provided your comments and encouraged me to think about it again. I tried a few more sources to find the snippet about eating with your feet planted on the ground, with no luck. I see eating alone slowly in the beginning of the chapter entitled “How to Be Cheerful though Starving” in How to Cook a Wolf, and dining on board ship alone with relish in The Gastronomical Me, in her “Sea Change 1938-39” chapter. Could it be one of those?

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