In my lumpy, small-town adolescence, I found escape from awkwardness on trips to my mother's office in New York City. If she was too busy, I'd have a museum pass and an afternoon on my own to slip into blissful anonymity and eat something good. Perching on a silver stool and eating oily, onion-sweet focaccia alone at Dean & DeLuca and watching very grown-up people striding past the café's floor-to-ceiling windows felt wonderfully adult. I ordered, I paid, I chose a seat. There was no chatter to distract from my savory, overpriced bread, nobody to please, to approve or disapprove of what or how much I ate — or to split it with. I stayed as long as I liked and left when I was damn ready.
Right through my teens, I thought myself a solo-dining pro, lazily stirring my coffee at counters and café tables while other girls scurried to the restroom in pairs. But I was an amateur. On a visit home from college, my mother re-gifted me a certificate for a fancy restaurant in the Peninsula Hotel. I arrived early in the evening, met by a wall of tuxedoed wait staff and a dining room that was silent but for the sail-snap of linens and the muffled slide of a chair being pulled out for me. Once I'd ordered, all my 13-year-old awkwardness returned and I picked at my bread, afraid to turn and see the staff watching me fidget.
I was rescued by a flurry of activity as a woman in a sharp blue jacket, her hair coiled in a Hitchcock bun, strolled in and took what seemed to be her usual table. She listened to the specials, ordered quickly and opened a small book as the staff receded. When her seared scallops arrived, she ate deliberately and sipped her wine, returning to the book when she was finished — a silent cue that summoned a waiter to clear her plate. She was epic. I stole glances of her as I cut my roulade of beef, marveling at her relaxed command of her own table, the ease with which she asked for the dessert menu, looking up at arriving diners and going right back to her meal and her book. Watching her, I no longer wanted to eat alone. I wanted to dine alone.
Epicurus, food blogger of the ancient world, did not think much of tables for one. He wrote,"dining alone is leading the life of a lion or wolf." Hell, yes. Sign me up.
We are social animals (as are lions and wolves, for that matter) and I, too, love sharing a meal. But dining alone has its own meditative pleasures. If you have small children, it's a joy just to eat with both hands once in a while. For some of us, though, eating without a companion is fraught with self-consciousness. Do I look tragic and friendless? Is everyone staring at me? Why can't I get a forkful of salad into my face without looking like I'm stuffing a wood chipper? Do I have enough data to use my phone as a crutch? Particularly for women, so accustomed to being viewed and judged — especially in the realm of food — this internalized pressure can suck the joy out of a meal.
But at some point you'll need to eat alone. Someone will cancel last minute, your fridge will be empty or you'll be on the road and hungry. You need not hunch over a paper wrapper in your car (not that I haven't relished a burrito in the driver's seat while blaring Springsteen on the side of the road). You deserve to eat well and be treated well whether or not someone else is across the table. Not having the cash to buy yourself a meal out is a reason not to indulge. Being by yourself is not.
If dining out alone is daunting, begin in places meant for the solo diner. And begin at breakfast. Nobody actually cares about who's eating alone in a restaurant — the only other diners we pay attention to are famous people, our exes and couples on horrible first dates, all of which are quality dinner theater — but nowhere is our general indifference more clear than a diner at breakfast.
Kristina's (250 W. Fifth St., Eureka) is a solid choice. Grab a seat at the counter and enjoy the show in the kitchen: waitresses flying back and forth balancing plates, cooks hustling and joking. Still feel watched? Inspire envy and respect by ordering the New York Waffle, a Belgian hot from the iron and trapped beneath an avalanche of ice cream, whipped cream, fresh strawberries and raspberry Melba sauce ($9.79). What? You are a grown-ass woman/man/non-binary adult and you do what you want. (Unless you're diabetic because, seriously, this will kill you and you should get an omelet, which is also nice.) Let this childhood fantasy of a breakfast take you back to giddy memories; revel in the sensory overload of warm and cold, tart berries, melting cream and a sip of black coffee.
When you're feeling good dining semi-invisibly, it's time to face the world instead of the kitchen. Grab your sunglasses and something to read — unplug from the virtual company of social media for a while — and head to Café Brio (791 G St., Arcata). Snag an outdoor table if it's nice out, or a corner table inside if it's raining or chilly. Order up a buttery croque monsieur with Emmantal and gruyere cheeses, ham and cornichons on freshly baked bread ($9.25). It not only shames the cheese toast you were going to throw together at home but it will put you in the mysterious French writer/film star headspace that makes sitting by oneself at a café table utterly glamorous. And here is the thing you will come to realize once you emerge from the engrossing pleasure of reading and the richness of your sandwich: Those people sipping espresso and eating croque monsieur at sidewalk cafes look cool because it tastes wonderful and they do not give a damn.
Take your time lunching in a few places and work up to dinner. Make it the best you can afford to spoil yourself with, whether it's a good hamburger, a bowl of pho or a plate of seared tuna. Where would you hope to be taken for a birthday? Go there. Make a reservation for one, show up and give your name like a boss. Once you order, look around the room and take in all that is laid out for your enjoyment. Savor your food and your own good company. And if you feel self-consciousness creeping in, remember: Yours is the life of a lion, of a wolf.