Dining out with friends is one of life's greatest pleasures, but there's something to be said for occasionally enjoying a good meal and one's own company.
Monte Smith, owner of Café Monte in SouthPark, says the single diner is a new phenomenon. He assured me he takes no pity on solo diners. In fact, he says it takes confidence to dine alone. "Whether it's a table for two, a table of 10 or a table for one, we're happy to have you," he says. "There is no stigma attached to eating alone."
For those times, I offer my instructions on how to dine alone with aplomb.
1. Say loudly to the waiter — so everyone around can hear: "I'm here on business. I do have friends (and plenty of them!) back home."
2. Take a breath, and get over yourself. No one else in the restaurant cares that you're alone. No one is wondering where your friends are ... or if they're somewhere else having fun without you.
3. Ah, but then remember how your mom has always been concerned about solo diners. She has puzzled over them, hoped they didn't always have to dine alone and considered asking them to join her. Then realize that someone could possibly be worried about you, too. No, put that thought out of your head. Decide it really is OK to be here, at this restaurant you've chosen, by yourself.
4. Consider sitting at the bar, if you're inclined to be social. That's an easy place to make friends — if only with the bartender for the next hour.
5. Or not. No one deserves a window seat more than you. I love 300 East's big corner window overlooking East Boulevard, or a seat in their flower garden. A table at Viva Chicken looking out onto Elizabeth Avenue is a good bet, too.
6. Make conversation with the waiter, but only if he or she isn't in the middle of the lunch or dinner rush. (Or don't chat him up. This is your dinner, and you get to decide how chatty you'll be.)
7. Study the menu. Find out what the kitchen does best.
8. Order whatever you want. Sometimes, another person's order influences your own. Who wants to be the guy who orders the triple cheeseburger when everyone else has a salad with dressing on the side? If you want an appetizer and an entrée, go for it. Don't skimp because you're not with a companion.
Keep in mind, though, some foods are best ordered with a group. A platter of buffalo wings, for instance. You need a mate to tell you when you've got sauce on your chin.
9. Savor. Don't hurry the meal just because you're alone. Notice the way the food looks on your plate. Appreciate the farmers who raised and harvested the food. Be grateful for the restaurant owner who took a risk by opening his or her own place. Acknowledge the hard-working waiter or waitress and the role he played in getting your order right. Dining with friends is all about the company. Let dining alone be an act of gratitude. Like a prayer, as Madonna sang.
10. Eavesdrop. It can be fun and/or frightening to listen in on other people's conversations. But definitely don't act like you're listening ...
11. Unless you want in on the conversation. And sometimes you do. At a recent solo dinner in New York (at Mario Batali's sublime ESCA), the couple beside me at the bar — clearly regulars — asked the new bartender where he was from. He'd moved to New York to escape the Minnesota winters. That led us to a group conversation about weather, our hometowns and summoning the courage to leave home.
12. Play Words with Friends or check email or Facebook. Café Monte's Smith says the advent of electronic gadgetry has made people much more comfortable with dining sans companions. "I see people dining alone who take pictures of their food and then put them on their blogs or Facebook page," he says. "Social media has given people a way to feel connected even when they're not physically connected."
13. Then again, consider leaving the technology alone for 30 minutes.
14. Have a book or Kindle with you. (But if it's a library book, be respectful. No one wants to find your schmutz on their book.)
15. Always — whether alone or with others — tip generously for good service.
Dining out — like seeing a movie, concert or play — is best when enjoyed in the company of another human being. But not having immediate access to another human is no reason to miss out on the joy of good food (or good cinema, music or theater).
Go solo — bravely and proudly. And enjoy yourself. You're in good company, after all.