Streets filled with pantomimists, clarinet players, and bead-draped women give credence to the notion that New Orleans is more of a stage than a city. People watching, as much as dining, is the preferred pastime in the cuisine-crazed French Quarter, where gulping gumbo and observing revelers go together like a bowl of turtle soup and a splash of sherry. Perhaps that’s why, while dining alone during a business trip to New Orleans earlier this year, I felt like the star in a pathetic one-man show.
Seated at my two-person table at K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen, I sensed that my audience—the couples, families, business associates who occupied the restaurant’s other tables—was staring and snickering as my waiter whisked away the second place setting, leaving an empty expanse of white tablecloth in front of me. I thought of F. Scott Fitzgerald and wondered if he was dining alone when he wrote, “The strongest guard is placed at the gateway of nothing. Maybe because the condition of emptiness is too shameful to be divulged.”
I was wise enough to request a table by the wall, and when the appetizer arrived, I put my head down, inhaled the turtle soup, and sopped up the remaining puddle with chunks of jalapeño cheese rolls. That furious pace, however, left several eternal minutes as I waited for my entrée. I sipped water needlessly to appear occupied, convinced that my neighbors were glancing at and whispering about the friendless fool. I paced myself better during the entrée and asked the waiter to bring the check with the bread pudding.
Maybe it’s paranoia or perhaps it’s narcissism, but whatever the basis for such trepidation, it seems that the fear of dining alone is quite common. A web site exists for those of us who would rather risk the shame of a table for one than settle for room service. SoloDining.com, published and edited by Marya Charles Alexander, offers helpful hints on how to dine alone with grace, dignity, and confidence.
First of all, reassures Alexander, my fear that I was the center of attention at K-Paul’s was indeed unfounded. “The other diners are pretty much always wrapped up in their own meals,” she explains. She approves of the request for a table by the wall, although she recommends making a reservation. “It sets you apart as a discerning solo diner deserving of excellent service. It puts the restaurant on notice.”
Because conversation is out of the question—if you do talk to yourself, rest assured that you will draw the attention of others—Alexander recommends eavesdropping on fellow diners’ discussions and playing a game in which you construct profiles of these people and their relationships with each other—first date, married, first date and married. And bring some reading material. I made the mistake of leaving my New Yorker at the hotel in New Orleans, assuming the staff or other diners would be offended if I read at the table. “I have yet to hear from a restaurant that takes affront from that,” Alexander says.
Armed with Alexander’s advice on my next business trip, a four-day affair in Miami, I entered Monty’s in South Beach with no hesitation, just hunger. This time, the “just one?” query from the maître d’ didn’t sound so much like a snicker. I requested a table by a wall near the entrance so that I could watch the diners—they seemed to be mostly couples—come and go. After the waiter took my order, I sipped some water, unrolled my Atlantic Monthly, and relaxed.
The appetizer arrived, and as I dipped the crab claws into mustard sauce and savored the tasty meat, I watched the couple sitting in front of me, caught bits of their conversation, and determined that they were probably on their third, maybe fourth date at most. He seemed a little too friendly and eager to please, and she chuckled politely at his jokes.
Sure, it would have been nice to have company that evening, because a truly great dinner is a perfect blend of consumption and companionship. But why, as Alexander asks, should I have deprived myself of a fabulous meal?
As I left Monty’s, a conga line of couples was waiting to be seated. It was, after all, Valentine’s Day.