By Suzanne Lenzer (Photo by Evan Sung)
I distinctly remember a meal that I shared with Virginia Woolf at an Italian restaurant in London in 1989. I had just graduated college and gone to London in hopes of working in a kitchen (typically, I ended up working as a waitress). In retrospect it seems quite daring to have left California with no job prospects, family, or friends nearby, but I wasn’t anxious about being on my own in a foreign country. What I was anxious about was eating out––alone.
Eating alone at home is one thing: You cook, then sit at the table and eat. Maybe you read or watch TV at the same time. But at twenty-one, eating alone in a restaurant was new to me. Growing up I’d always gone out to eat with my family, and in college, with friends. The idea of going to a proper restaurant and eating a meal by myself had never really occurred to me.
But suddenly, in a brand new city with nothing but time on my hands, I wanted to be out. But the bravery that got me on an airplane with little more than a duffle bag and a couple of books abandoned me when it came to walking into a nice restaurant, asking for a table, and proceeding to eat dinner by myself. Hunger is a powerful force though, and it won out in the end.
I chose a restaurant I had passed on previous wanderings, the reconnaissance somehow providing a sense of security in the familiar. Then, armed with Woolf’s The Voyage Out (embarrassingly symbolic looking back now), I walked in. That part was surprisingly easy, and “Just one please” wasn’t difficult to say. But sitting down and scoping out the room, I felt awkward. I was terribly conscious of being young, female, and American, but mostly, I was conscious of being on my own while all the other diners were not. The lights were dim and the waiters were kind, but still, here I was out to dinner alone.
I ate a bowl of mushroom ravioli and drank a glass of red wine, the cheapest on the menu. And I know I read my book, or tried to, missing sentences and having to go back to re-read paragraphs – again and again – because my awareness of sitting there by myself was simply too strong. I couldn’t relax and forget my surroundings, and I imagined if anyone had bothered to notice me, they would have known this.
This memory comes back years later and many, many enjoyable solitary meals behind me, because of a woman I saw the other night. In New York you see people eating alone everywhere, from the corner dumpling shop to the most elegant restaurants. And, with the popularity of bar seating, more than ever you see people eating by themselves while idly reading a newspaper, or more likely, talking on a cell phone (which does not count as eating alone in my book).
But this young woman caught my eye. She came into this fashionable, casual restaurant, ordered a glass of wine, and drank it while eating a plate of prosciutto and cheese. She ate quickly, and glanced around often, a bit anxiously. She seemed distracted. Watching her I thought it might be her first time as a solitary diner.
It goes without saying that eating is nurturing. Our first food comes straight from our mother’s body and for most of us our formative years of eating are shared experiences with those closest to us. Later we share meals with friends, or partners, but for many if not most of us, eating alone is relegated to home or a quick bite somewhere anonymous, where it’s less about the experience than sustenance. Especially, it seems, for women. Independence and self-sufficiency aside, an anecdotal study of just a handful of my friends reveals that women still don’t eat out alone at restaurants with a sense of security, and it’s a shame. Because learning to enjoy a meal out with only your own company or that of a good book is an empowering experience, one that offers an opportunity to nourish both the body and the mind.
Perhaps we don’t eat alone more often because we’re taught not to—or rather we’re not taught how to. From day one we learn to eat in the company of others, and we figure out fast that the kids who eat alone at school are the kids who don’t have anyone to eat with. Socially, eating alone is not a sign of our strength, but of a lack of social standing.
We’re ingrained to believe that meals are communal activities. And, in today’s overly stimulated world we’re so accustomed to constant distraction that the act of doing something so focused, of sitting quietly in an intimate environment like a restaurant – with just ourselves for company – leaves us feeling exposed. With no one sitting across the table to keep us occupied, we wonder what those others sitting in the room make of our solitary status.
Of course that status is deceptive, because today being alone doesn’t mean being out of touch. Activities like phoning, texting, and emailing not only keep our minds from settling and enjoying the solitude, but from experiencing the purity and possible insecurity of being alone.
When I was struggling to cross the threshold of that restaurant in London there were no cell phones. I was very much by myself. But I hadn’t yet discovered the pleasure that comes with deciding exactly what I want to eat without a negotiation with someone else. I hadn’t imagined the sense of independence that accompanies ordering a meal and not asking what others are having or wondering if they’ll want to share. And I hadn’t realized the depth of the flavors of food that I could experience when there wasn’t anything to occupy my mind beyond the plate in front of me and my own thoughts. How earthy and rich those porcini, how tangy that lemon tart! How much I sometimes miss of the food itself when chatting my way through meals with friends.
The truth is eating alone is a treat. Now, when I’m in my chair or on my stool, menu in hand, I get to think about what I’m going to enjoy eating and drinking all by myself, ponder what I’m going to think about or read that I haven’t had time for, and wonder, why I don’t do this more often?