Monday, December 26, 2011

Dining Alone

All of us have dined alone, but not everyone in a restaurant. I have been single a long time … a long, long time. By my latest calculation, I have eaten more than 19,709 meals alone (the actual number was 19,710). When I added up those numbers, I was reminded of the penultimate Mary Tyler Moore Show when she adds up all the dates she’s had – more than 2,000 dates. It is then she decides to go out with Mr. Grant.

If you are single, you have also eaten quite a few inappropriate dinners – and don’t go denying it. For example, a quart of ice cream, an entire extra-large, meat lovers pizza or even a family-sized bucket of fried chicken with all the sides. You can do this in the comfort of your own home without anyone knowing what you did. That is until you waddle into the office one Monday morning, and you bang into all the cubicles with both hips at once.

More things single people have done are: eat all three courses out of one very large bowl while sitting on the couch watching that TLC series about the morbidly obese; eat an entire meal over the sink while waving at your neighbors from the kitchen window; or worse, stand in front of an open refrigerator with a spoon, opening all the leftover containers one by one, consuming their contents, and flinging the empty containers into the sink before moving onto the next one, until none are left.

I, for one, have done none of the above, and I dare you to prove otherwise. Uuurrrppp.

However, and I say however a lot, not many single people have eaten dinner in a restaurant alone. I single out dinner because stopping for breakfast or lunch and eating alone does not seem to be a big deal to most people. How self-conscious can one be about eating a corned beef sandwich, two cream sodas, and six dill pickles in seventeen minutes? I can tell you – not very.

Dining alone is not a problem for me, but as a twenty-year veteran of the restaurant industry and being a resident citizen of the United States, I can understand why some do have a problem with dining single on this side of the pond.

Going to a restaurant alone in the New World is a different from experience from dining on the Continent. Americans are uptight people, and some of the people who are paid to serve us are the most uptight of all.  

It usually starts with the host or hostess who greets you with “just one?” I never met a single childless restaurant hostess or one who was in a happy relationship. They don’t understand someone who isn’t tethered to another living being via reproduction or a one-night stand turned twelve-year live-in relationship after a bender at the local western bar. Yes, I generalize about hostesses, so sue me. 

Then, the bitter hostess does this. She looks at the reservation book nervously even if the restaurant is empty. Then she looks at the dining room as if she never saw it before. Several minutes later, you get, “Follow me.” You then follow her all over the restaurant. She is confused. What do you do with one person? This is unnatural. Everyone comes in pairs or four-tops, or groups of eight or more. Never “just one.” You end up seeing sections of the restaurant the owner doesn’t even know about, and finally she seats you. She doesn’t look at you directly. She puts the menu down and looks for a waiter. And you hear, “He is alone over there.” Then, she points.

It is at this point when I want to scratch my armpits and fling my feces at the next person who walks by since the staff stare at me for a minute as if the hostess just seated a monkey in the dining room.

As a former waiter, I know how some of the staff react. Some of the single straight waiters sigh and wait on the single guy as quickly as possible to free up the table. Do you need to get through dinner quickly because you have theater plans? Split your group into singles. They will rush you out of there, you will have time to look for a good parking space, and you won’t miss the overture.

Some of the waitresses will flirt with you and linger until they find out you're gay. Married doesn’t matter whether it is the guest or the waitress. Gay assures you a quiet meal. So, any straight guys out there. If you just don’t want to be bothered while you eat dinner, start the conversation with, “My husband, Trent, recommended this restaurant.”

But if you got me for a waiter in my day, you were treated like any other patron and not rushed. Have I mentioned I am perfect? I also had eaten my share of meals alone in restaurants. I was also the only waiter who would wait on the biker groups. Wild and loud, but the best tippers in the world! It pays not to have hangups.

We are a country that views single people with suspicion while at the same time being obsessed with marriage and relationships. Not our own marriages and relationships – everyone else’s. No matter where on the political spectrum you sit, as an American, it is your duty to be obsessed with everyone else’s marriage. When they say your marriage will ruin marriage as an institution, you point out their multiple marriages, eleven-hour marriages and seventy-two-day marriages. When they say your marriage is forbidden in the Bible, you point out that on that same page it says you can’t eat pork, yet they served ham biscuits at their wedding, which brings us back to restaurants.

Europeans don’t have the hang-ups we do. The women go to topless at the beach with more body hair than Robin Williams. The pear shaped men with bird arms and legs wear bikinis. Their politicians have affairs, and their only concern is what the mistress is wearing.

They also don’t care if you eat single in a restaurant.

I have been to Europe three times, twice alone and once with a cheap partner, who didn’t want to spend money on food, so he ate Powerbars for every meal, while I stopped at street vendors. We were in Paris! We never walked into a restaurant! Don't travel with a Southern Baptist.  

My first trip was to Austria to visit my friend Caroline in Salzburg. I loved it. I ate about half of my evening meals alone, and I never ran into the bitter hostess syndrome. I wasn’t seated in a dark corner or a table by the water closet. I sat in the dining room with the other human beings. No one rushed me. My favorite restaurant was this adorable Greek bistro. The staff and I would hold a conversation with my limited Greek and German and their fluent English. I was given samples of specials and invited to taste different wines. For once, I ate alone in a restaurant and didn’t finish my meal in twelve minutes, while they cleared and set my table for the next party before I could get one arm into the sleeve of my coat.

If single restaurant patrons in the United States were always treated this way, we would have fewer bad marriages because dining alone would not be an unpleasant experience and one wouldn’t seek out bad relationships just so he could try a new restaurant. I have interesting theories.

I have had some interesting experiences in restaurants, especially while traveling this great land of ours.

In Tallahassee while on a business trip, a waitress was so nervous about having a single diner in her section that she spent fifteen minutes explaining how a salad bar works. She must have thought it was my first day out of the crate. The restaurant’s salad bar had six items, two of which were dressing. I decided to dine somewhere else.

In Suffolk, Virginia, after an all-day business meeting, a hostess kept trying to seat me with other people. “Are you sure you wouldn’t want to sit here? They seem like a nice couple.” “How about here? Their kids, other than that one, seem well behaved.”

In my best Greta Garbo, I said, “I want to dine alone.”

While in Horsham, Pennsylvania, on another business trip (do you see why I now put no travel on job applications?), a hostess kept looking behind me for more people, no matter how many times I said, “One.” Then she asked if I wanted to place a to-go order. I guess no one ever sat alone in her restaurant. I stayed, and I dined for two hours. That drove her crazy! The food was lousy.

So, this year for Christmas, I had no plans. I couldn’t decide if I wanted to pop a Lean Cuisine into the microwave or go out to eat. By mid-afternoon, after editing for almost seven hours, I decided to go out for Chinese food. Not only would I be a single gay Jew in a Chinese restaurant on Christmas, I would be in a restaurant full of Jews, being that it was in Columbia, where more than a few Jewish families live.

I cleaned up, got dressed, very nicely, I might add. No jeans. After all, it was a federal holiday.

I walked in, and the hostess said, “Just one.” She then looked at the reservation book, then at the half empty dining room, and said, “Follow me.” I then followed her from table to table as she stopped or hesitated or changed her mind. She then conferred with a fellow staffer in their native tongue, I am guessing Mandarin, and then she gave me the reverse tour of the restaurant, until she finally seated me against the wall in a two-top. She found my waiter, whispered in his ear, and pointed at me.

Some things never change.

If you dine single or know someone who does, follow me, get on my email list, share me with your friends.

1 comment:

  1. I have no problem eating dinner alone. Especially when I've got a good ebook on my cell that I can enjoy while I'm eating! I haven't been on the Trek of the Single Diner yet but I'm sure my time will come. lol