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Conjure the image of a single person in an elegant restaurant taking dinner alone, and you'll conjure inner conflict. How does it make you feel? The image, the idea of it, is bittersweet.
"Surely she's from out of town," you think when you see her sitting solo at a table swept clean of its second setting. Or, "How sad. He must be lonely."
Then you return to your own dull conversation and think, "I wish that was me over there."
It's common to see a party of one at breakfast, or lunch, or even at the bar at dinnertime, where televisions and bartenders stand in for more intimate companionship.
But dining out alone -- at a table, in the dining room -- is rare. It is a conspicuous act, one that is noticed. It requires a certain confidence, a willingness to face the inevitable question, "Just one tonight?" and not hear, "How pathetic." It is not for everybody.
"I rarely see anybody else eating alone," says Vicky Uhland of Lafayette, Colo. She takes herself out for dinner about three times a week. "It's my choice," she says. "If I needed to, I could get someone to go with me. But I don't need to."
Dining out solo suggests a measure of boldness. "When you go out to dinner and sit at a table, you're making a statement," says Chris Gregory, director of operations for Bonanno Concepts, a Denver restaurant group. "You've committed to the reservation, the table, the menu. When we see a single diner come in, we see someone who's gone out of their way to come here."
With 20-plus years working restaurant floors behind him, Mr. Gregory can't paint a generic profile of the lone diner ("all kinds," he says), but most strike a certain stance: "You're letting the restaurant know you want to see what they have to offer," he says. "Like the critic in Ratatouille. He would be the acme of that."
People eating alone aren't paying attention to friends or flirting with a date. Instead, their attention goes to themselves and their food. "You get to order what you want," Gregory says. "You don't need to take anyone else into consideration."
Most single diners at Mizuna, one of Mr. Gregory's restaurants, choose the multi-course tasting menu rather than a single entree, he says. Wine pairings too. And they eat with enthusiasm.
Treating yourself to dinner out -- particularly a tasting menu with wine pairings -- is a clear expression of self-gratification, and self-gratification fuels suspicions, particularly in America. "There's an idea here that you're overindulgent if you go out to dinner alone," says Joe Yonan, food editor at the Washington Post and author of the new book Serve Yourself: Nightly Adventures in Cooking for One. "People in other cultures seem more comfortable eating out alone. I'm thinking of Europe. There, they appreciate that you want to go out primarily for the food and not necessarily for the company."
The meal itself is company enough for Ms. Uhland. "It's my reward at the end of the day," she says. "I like to have good service, have a nice drink. The atmosphere matters too. It doesn't necessarily have to be quiet. But it has to be comfortable."
Ms. Uhland sits at a table, not at the bar. "That's where I draw the line, the bar. A good girl alone at the bar? For some reason it's kind of sleazy."
More red flags for Ms. Uhland: "I would never do Valentine's Day or any time I would look like a giant loser," she says. "If it was a really trendy restaurant I probably wouldn't go there on a Saturday."
Ms. Uhland and others find that servers tend to treat lone diners generously. Deborah Madison, co-author of the 2009 book What We Eat When We Eat Alone and a frequent solo diner when traveling, reports: "The waiters appreciate that you're there and that you're not weird."
Some dine with a smartphone. "I fall into that trap sometimes," says Mr. Yonan. "I try not to do it. It's such a crutch. Just the idea that you can't be alone with yourself ... I find that to be kind of pathetic."
Ms. Uhland brings a book but is frequently distracted by the endemic live entertainment in the dining room. "You can totally spy on people. You can check out tables and speculate on them. It's fun," she says.
What she sees often reinforces her contentedness: "How often do I see couples not speak to each other for an entire meal?"
The experience of eating alone at home is different but no less complicated. Many of us do it, as Ms. Madison puts it, "leaning against the refrigerator." And there's no shame in that.
The shame surfaces when you do the opposite, when you spend money and time to shop for and prepare a full-fledged dinner for yourself. Perhaps "shame" is too strong a word. But much like dining out alone does, treating yourself to a nice dinner at home carries a whiff of self-indulgence.
It also carries a load of crazy baggage -- for example, Miss Lonely Hearts from Hitchcock's Rear Window, who would set candles on a table for two and carry on imaginary conversations with an invisible date. Was she eccentric or suicidal? (Spoiler alert: suicidal. Tip: Don't set a table for two. That's weird. Just eat.)
Mr. Yonan doesn't skimp on the quality of his ingredients, or the care with which he cooks them, no matter how many people he's cooking for. But when it's just him, he will skip some formalities -- like a fork. "When I'm cooking for myself I don't do highly constructed dishes that require a knife and a fork. I tend to be eating in front of the TV."
Ergo, his standby: pizza for one, the ultimate hand-held supper.
Ms. Madison, whose most recent book is Seasonal Fruit Desserts, proposes that the act of cooking itself provides a salve against loneliness.
"When you cook, you're changing your gear," she says. "Whatever mode you've been in all day, once you start cooking, you're suddenly involved. It's a different pattern, a different mode of being. It's not a random act. You're taking care of yourself. That has to feel better."
Lamb Chops With Tingle-and-Burn
2-3 lamb chops
Salt and pepper
A few pinches of red pepper flakes
Juice of ½ lemon
1 large garlic clove
1 scant tablespoon ground red chile
¼ teaspoon EACH ground cumin, coriander, and caraway
1 tablespoon olive oil
Rub the lamb chops with plenty of salt, freshly ground pepper, cumin ,and red pepper flakes. Drizzle a little olive oil over the meat and then squeeze the lemon over all. Cover and refrigerate for at least an hour. Let the chops return to room temperature before cooking.
To make the sauce, smash the garlic in a mortar with a few pinches of salt to break it up. Add the chile and spices and work them into the garlic with the oil.
Grill your lamb chops on an outdoor gas or charcoal grill, or a ridged pan placed over high heat, for a few minutes on each side or until they’re as done as you like them.
Let them rest on a plate for several minutes, then spreadthe sauce over them. Serve with a salad.
Yield: 1 serving
Source: What We Eat When We Eat Alone, by Deborah Madison and Patrick McFarlin