When I worked at what was then a terminally hip Greek restaurant on Vancouvers west side known for its terminally baroque social scene, the tables were small and lightweight. As the night progressed, their arrangement often became highly open-ended, depending as much on the amount of ouzo and retsina consumed as anything else.
As friends or potential friends of patrons drifted in, we, the so-called servers there to provide service when we werent sitting around enjoying ourselves as well, or the patrons themselves dragged tables together at random to create various free form configurations. These were obviously in total disregard of traffic paths, never mind fire regulations. They made wonky T- or L-shapes, or long rambling bar shapes, with maybe a table angled in when somebody wanted to sit beside a particular man or woman worth hitting on. The whole scene made for a lot of exciting dynamics and an obviously welcome sort of anarchy.
The point was no one who walked through the door alone felt out of place.
Compare that to the last time you walked into a restaurant solo and followed the host or maitre d down a long, long, ever-darkening aisle to some forlorn little table squeezed in beside a mildly smelly bus station.
The silverware looks like it hasnt been changed in two months. Your server invariably ignores you or hovers about so solicitously you finally take pity on the poor guy and gobble up your food so you can get out of there before he has a breakdown.
OK, maybe we women suffer from an extra deluxe kind of paranoia arising from gender-based stereotyping surrounding dining solo, or at least we suffer more from it. For despite our best efforts including but not necessarily restricted to choosing a likely comfortable restaurant, religiously but hopefully not too self-consciously carrying books/newspapers/guidebooks along for the date, and/or making sure weve got our Blackberries or Palm Pilots at hand dining solo often feels about as comfortable as public speaking.
One well-travelled pal says not to make it sound like a bad Kathy cartoon, but in a Japanese restaurant in Toronto she was once seated solo on a banquette next to an older gentleman at an adjacent table also seated solo. I mean, really, this set up is so ridiculously loaded your head cant help but spin. What does Lonesome Joe think? What do the other diners think? What the hell did the maitre d think when I walked in the door?
Luckily her encounter turned out graciously. The gentleman, who asked her to join him, turned out to be an interesting and articulate widower. But still
Before we look at one historic dynamic that may account for some of our contemporary presumptions about men and women dining alone, I should point out that men also take certain precautions to be comfortable when dining alone. Besides packing along the inevitable book, one writerly friend tries to choose smaller, family-run establishments where he feels service will be attentive but not overly solicitous. He likes to sit near a window to watch the world pass by.
Another has sussed out three Whistler favourites for dining solo the Mallard Bar at the Chateau Whistler, Araxi and Zeuskis. All three have bars, offering the possibility of talking/interacting with fellow diners or not, the latter two offering the additional bonus of outdoor exposure.
Of course, sushi bars also offer comfortable options for the solo diner. All the above are playing off an old custom lately made new again the communal table. The trend is pretty hot right now in Australia and the U.K. As one British restaurateur points out, not only does it refute the notion of biggest wallet-best table in a sort of nice small-is-big way, it also means the single diner doesn't have to eat alone.
But you dont have to fly abroad to check it out. One of Vancouvers trendier clubs, Subeez on Homer Street, offers great long communal tables in a hip kind of international style maple/stainless steel variation. A long, precisely designed barrier down the middle means you can or cannot, depending on eye contact and other variants, interact with the person across from you. There remain, however, those beside you, and depending on gender and other factors, you may or may not connect.
Not to say that dining alone is necessarily sexually loaded or politicized, but often theres no escaping such undercurrents. No doubt it stems at least in part from the development of the flaneur in France, around the 1880s a time of rapid industrialization and urbanization, when new ideas flowed through Europe as rapidly as goods from the colonies.
The flaneur was an archetypal figure: single, well-read and intellectually curious if not well-educated, and possibly well-heeled. He was at least a person of independent means, who had both the time and money to wander about the streets and frequent the cafes and restaurants of, say, Paris. There hed meet friends, exchange ideas, taste exotic new treats from the colonies, and generally have a rousing good time. And he, of course, was a he.
His status, at least amongst the liberal avant garde, was fairly well-assured, even emulated. On the other hand, single women on the streets, never mind in cafes or public houses, were beyond reproach, either prostitutes, one assumed, or drunks.
Not to say that all single men who dine out today are flaneurs, or single women hookers, but their essence still echoes in many contemporary presumptions and postures. Maybe thats why solo diners are still hiding out so defensively behind their books and newspapers, looking owly and defensive as they try to read by that little flickering candle on their table.
Going solo in style
Here are few tips for those in the restaurant business to consider when that single diner darkens their doorway. They come courtesy of diningsolo.com and a legion of friends whove dined alone a lot over the years.
Greet me warmly. Dont project your or other peoples discomfort about dining alone onto me.
Try to seat me quickly if Im standing in line. Not only does it make me feel welcome, it spares me from counting the sprinkler heads in the ceiling while the couples and groups around me chat up a storm.
Seating arrangements are the most important decision you can make to make me feel comfortable. Dont try to hide me in the back. Offer me choices if you have them a table for one, a seat at a counter/bar overlooking an exhibition kitchen or window, or a seat at a communal table.
This is not 1957. Do not let the thought that Im there to get picked up fire even one single neuron in your brain, whatever my gender. I could be a widower. I could be someone who enjoys dining alone.
Ask me if I would like to share a table with another solo diner or be seated near them. And please dont seat me directly across from another single diner. Neither of us will have anything to do while were chewing except to gaze uncomfortably into each others faces.
Seat me where I wont feel conspicuous ideally, a location with a view and with good lighting, should I want to read. Dont seat me alone in the middle of an empty room so I feel like a bull in the arena.
Stock good newspapers and magazines and offer me one.
Remove extra place settings without a lot of fanfare.
Dont assume Im a non-tipper or that I never treat myself to a good bottle of wine.
Dont rush me and dont ignore me.
Invite me to return. Better yet, treat me to a glass of wine or a dessert on the house to show how welcome I am.
Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning freelance writer who has finally learned to dine solo without a book.